Washington, D.C. — At a U.S. Senate Health Committee hearing titled, “Telehealth: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Committee, questioned health experts about their efforts to rapidly expand telehealth services for Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic and for the future. She also discussed the positive effect telehealth services has had on Saint Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston.
“The President of Saint Mary’s Hospital has said that the compliance rate, the no-show rate, has plummeted with behavioral health telemedicine visits,” said Senator Collins. “In other words, people who are being assisted with mental health problems are actually much more likely to keep the appointment if it was through telehealth, rather than if they had to go to the office of the therapist.”
Earlier this week, Senators Collins joined a bipartisan group of 30 Senators in calling for the expansion of access to telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic to be made permanent. Provisions of the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act, which was co-sponsored by Senator Collins, were included in COVID-19 relief legislation. These provisions, which expand coverage of telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries, are set to expire following the pandemic. New data show that the number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services increased by 11,718 percent in just a month and a half during the pandemic.
During the hearing, Senator Collins discussed how this expanded coverage of telehealth services should also be made available for Medicaid beneficiaries.
“A speech-language pathologist at Waldo County General Hospital in Maine contacted me some time ago about elderly patients with head and neck cancer who were unable to eat due to the effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Some of them required feeding tubes—and in some cases, unnecessarily—because of a lack of available swallowing therapy,” said Senator Collins. “These patients live in rural areas and cannot easily get to a specialist who could help them with their swallowing problems. The doctor was frustrated that while commercial insurance and Medicaid in the State of Maine allow the practice to bill for telehealth services, Medicare did not.”
All four witnesses responded with strong support for expanding coverage of telehealth services for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.
Senator Collins also discussed the effectiveness of audio-only telehealth since many older adults do not have access to high-speed Internet.
“The Pew Research Center notes that half of adults 65 or older do not have broadband at home, and rural residents and seniors living below the poverty line are less likely to have access to broadband, said Senator Collins. “Senator Doug Jones and I have introduced a bill to expand broadband access, but as we continue to work to eliminate this disparity for individuals and families without access to reliable broadband, can audio-only telemedicine be deployed effectively?”
“I think audio-only is very effective. It’s not one hundred percent effective; there are certainly times where a visual inspection of the patient is important,” said Joseph Kvedar, M.D., President of the American Telemedicine Association and a professor at Harvard Medical School. “We’ve been so impressed by how much we can get done with audio because so much of our diagnostic and therapeutic decisions are around data.”
Senator Collins has long been a proponent of expanding access to telemedicine, which is often vital to delivering health care in large, rural areas. Last week, Senators Collins and Angus King announced more than $500,000 for two Maine health centers to improve and expand telehealth services.
In April, Senators Collins and King joined 35 other senators in sending a letter urging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to increase reimbursements for telephone-based, or audio-only, telehealth services to equal other audio-visual telehealth and in-person visitation reimbursements.