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Congress has a chance to get telehealth right

COVID-19 and the emphasis on social distancing has highlighted the many benefits of telehealth. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander recently called for legislative action to make flexibility for telehealth permanent. As Congress moves on this topic, special interests will mobilize to add mandates that require higher prices for all telehealth services. For people with disabilities, those with chronic conditions, and lower-middle-class patients, telehealth is a literal lifeline to their doctors, yet mandates can adversely affect them. Policymakers should reject these mandates but still adopt a robust framework for providers to use telehealth without barriers for care across state lines.

Telehealth saves enormous amounts of time and avoids time spent in a waiting room with other sick patients. It is more convenient for the provider and can be delivered from almost anywhere. The convenience of this care is a key indicator why telehealth can and should be delivered for a fraction of the cost of an in-person visit.

Yet, some are pushing mandates called payment and coverage parity, which ultimately makes telehealth more expensive and pushes care out of reach for vulnerable patients. The mandates force patients to pay the same rate as if they had visited the office in person, and for older adults on Medicare, patients and taxpayers will have to pay more as well, including all extra fees and administrative surcharges that would otherwise be avoided when using telehealth. This seems to be behind the thoughtful calls by Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Administrator Seema Verma to reexamine the government paying higher rates for telehealth.

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