In wake of COVID-19, telehealth regulations have been loosened; those changes should remain even after crisis is over

By Martha Njolomole and Julie Grace

With the COVID-19 pandemic, health service providers are utilizing services that connect doctors and patients remotely, called telemedicine. Telemedicine allows patients to receive health care without physically meeting a doctor. Through telemedicine, patients can discuss symptoms, learn treatment options and even get prescriptions. Doctors can go as far as monitoring readings from medical devices.

Gov. Tony Evers recently signed an emergency order allowing licensed doctors from other states to practice telemedicine in Wisconsin during the COVID-19 crisis — a positive development in the face of growing medical caseloads. Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services (DHS) also expanded telehealth for mental health services and temporarily lifted other regulations to combat the crisis.

Why telemedicine is not commonly practiced

The practice of telemedicine is not widespread because apart from technological impediments and some patients’ reluctance to use it, telemedicine is heavily regulated. Due to the nature of the services provided, measures have to be taken to ensure health and safety. Telemedicine also faces data and privacy regulations that may be unique to both the technological and health care industries.

But the current crisis has prompted unprecedented calls for the use of telemedicine. Public health care officials are urging people to utilize this option in order to keep those with symptoms at home and to ensure social distancing. The good news is that a lot of states and the federal government have taken measures in the last couple of years to loosen telemedicine regulations. 

Among the reforms, governments have expanded telemedicine services reimbursement, relaxed technology requirements, implemented novel approaches to licensing and relaxed supervision laws related to non-physician providers. This has helped establish a good working environment for health providers to adopt telemedicine.

Recent changes to telehealth in Wisconsin

Last November, Evers signed a bill that requires DHS to reimburse for telehealth services through Medicaid. The legislation, authored by state Sens. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Janet Bewley (D-Mason), passed the Legislature with bipartisan support.

The bill defines telehealth as “a practice of health care delivery, diagnosis, consultation, treatment or transfer of medically relevant data by means of audio, video or data communications that are used either during a patient visit or a consultation or are used to transfer medically relevant data about a patient.”

It allows Wisconsin’s Medicaid patients to receive virtual care at home from a medical provider in the same way they would in an in-person clinic setting — saving travel time and wait time at doctors’ offices for patients, especially those in rural areas. The legislation prohibits DHS from requiring medical providers to complete additional requirements simply because they serve patients through telehealth.

While lawmakers probably weren’t considering the effects of a global pandemic when they passed the bill, the legislation will almost certainly enhance efforts to combat COVID-19.

What we’re learning from the coronavirus

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal and state governments have taken additional measures to lessen telemedicine restrictions. The federal government has waived some enforcement of federal law relating to patient privacy by lifting key barriers to the use of popular video messaging platforms such as FaceTime.

States for the most part have been waiving Medicaid requirements, including allowing telehealth — even phone calls — to qualify as the establishment of a doctor-patient relationship. Some also have eased the rules to allow residents to access telehealth for mental health services from home.

Telemedicine providers have seen a huge surge in demand for their services due to the need for social distancing, and governments have responded by loosening regulations. The question going forward should be, Why should telemedicine be limited to periods of crisis?

The pandemic has shown that telemedicine is a viable and valuable service. State and federal governments should act to ensure that these allowances and reforms remain permanent. More action can be taken to ensure that telemedicine providers are able to reach more patients by, for instance, adopting universal recognition of out-of-state licenses.

Telemedicine can reduce the need for in-person visits for most patients and greatly improve efficiency in the health care system, even when there’s not a pandemic. Policymakers should act to permanently remove barriers to these services.

Martha Njolomole is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. Julie Grace is a Badger Institute policy analyst. 

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