Telehealth services have expanded to address COVID-19 emergency. Let’s preserve the most effective innovations.

April 23, 2020

A doctor sits in front of a laptop, offering telehealth services during COVID-19. The patient shown in the laptop holds a tissue to her nose..Over the past decade, telehealth services have been on the rise, in part due to the fact that more and more states are adopting telehealth-friendly policies. But by 2019, the proportion of U.S. consumers using telehealth services was still only about 10 percent. In light of the COVID-19 emergency, national Medicare and Michigan Medicaid and commercial plans have responded with changes to coverage, opening up telehealth options to more consumers than ever before. Some of these telehealth innovations are beneficial and should be preserved even after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some changes to telehealth in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will have a long term impact, such as the expansion of telehealth capabilities among providers. With funding from the Federal Communications Commission as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) providers can apply for funding to become better equipped to offer telehealth services, particularly in rural or medically underserved areas hit hardest by the pandemic.

Most of the changes to telehealth were designed to be temporary, effective only during the COVID-19 emergency period. However, we believe many telehealth innovations are worth preserving after the COVID-19 pandemic, especially changes that have improved care for patients with mobility issues or those who must travel long distances to see providers in person.

In this brief, we outline key changes to federal, state, and commercial telehealth policies and discuss challenges and opportunities for policymakers and decision leaders who wish to preserve telehealth access when the crisis is over. Among other concerns, access to the technology necessary to participate in telehealth is needed on both the consumer and provider side and still lags behind for important constituents—including some who have been traditionally underserved. And true commercial insurer payment parity policies also lag behind in most states. Payment parity would put telehealth on par with in-person visits to encourage providers to pursue telehealth as an option whenever appropriate, giving more options to consumers. Policymakers at every level will need to continue to address these issues to close the gaps in telehealth access and preserve the innovations the COVID-19 pandemic has caused.


Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Dana Chesla-Hughes, program manager, behavioral health, Michigan Health Endowment Fund.