As Americans follow government requests to stay home and help flatten the curve in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare industry is seeing updated rules and regulations nationwide designed to improve access to telemedicine. In response to the spread of COVID-19, regulatory barriers are being removed and consumers educated about the benefits of telehealth. A sharp increase in consumer interest has resulted, as millions of new beneficiaries can now access telehealth services from their providers.
Consumer research firm Sykes found three-quarters of survey respondents said they would consider telehealth services in response to COVID-19, with two-thirds saying the outbreak had increased their willingness to try virtual healthcare solutions. The survey participants listed convenience as a major factor in the attraction of using telehealth, with 36% preferring not having to commute to a doctor’s office. Only one in ten respondents had already used telehealth, with most of those between the ages of 18-34.
To increase access to telehealth services nationwide, the Federal Communications Commission rolled out a new $200 million program as part of the federal COVID-19 response stimulus package. The program is designed to help healthcare providers access the broadband internet service and IT products needed to implement telehealth. It is available for hospitals, community clinics, nursing homes and other healthcare providers – which can apply for funding starting this week. Additional funds targeting low-income patients and veterans can be accessed specifically by nonprofit hospitals and community mental health centers. These grants cover up to 85% of broadband internet service and other technology needs.
The Chairman of the FCC shared his thoughts in the agency’s press release:
“With the adoption of the $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program, the FCC can now take immediate steps to provide funding so that more patients can be treated at home, freeing up valuable hospital beds for those who most need them and reducing the risk of exposure to the virus. In addition, the new Connected Care Pilot Program will help us to look to the future and determine how universal service support can shepherd telehealth services into a new era of healthcare delivery.”
The FCC program follows another federal announcement by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in March to broaden access to telehealth services so that beneficiaries can receive a wider range of services from their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility. CMS expanded access to telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries for routine care, designed to help keep vulnerable beneficiaries and those with mild symptoms in their homes while maintaining access to care.
Under the new rules, Medicare can pay for telehealth office, hospital and other visits regardless of the location of the patient and/or the provider. The changes impact a variety of providers, including doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists and licensed clinical social workers, who can now access Medicare payments for telehealth services. This is a huge expansion of telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries who could only previously access telehealth services on a very limited basis, mostly for rural health service.
As the effort to reduce barriers to delivering high quality telehealth services to patients across the country shows, telemedicine is poised for huge growth. From mental health services to virtual doctor visits, everyday Americans across the country can now connect with healthcare providers from the comfort and safety of their own homes. When the COVID-19 outbreak is over, these patients will continue to benefit from telehealth services and the industry will continue to work to improve telehealth services that increase access to low-cost and patient-centered care.
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