Early in the fight against COVID-19, President Donald Trump made it clear that he believed one of our greatest strengths in defeating this virus would be access to affordable, quality health care.
As part of his administration’s initial response to the public health crisis, President Trump directed federal agencies to expand the use of telehealth services, especially in rural America, to help achieve that goal. Countless West Virginians have benefited from the increased emphasis on telehealth capabilities.
Telehealth — or telemedicine — enables patients to access their doctor remotely. Patients can avoid germ-filled waiting rooms and meet virtually with a health care provider from the comfort of their own home. Telemedicine also expands patient choice by removing geographical barriers to care. A doctor in Charleston can use telehealth capabilities to treat folks in Bluefield, as easily as those in Morgantown.
Under the Trump administration’s guidance, federal agencies have been slashing away at red tape that prevents more Americans from fully utilizing telehealth services. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services now pays for more telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries. This reform alone has kept many elderly individuals, who are at a greater risk of COVID-19, at home without having to forgo care.
Additionally, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense are expanding their use of telehealth capabilities, keeping more of our nation’s veterans and active-duty military personnel safe.
Telehealth has the potential to benefit all Americans — saving patients and the health care system money — but without 21st-century technologies in place to use them, telehealth isn’t a viable option in many rural communities. While the Trump administration recently announced it will make needed investments in rural communications to help bridge the technology gap in rural America, we know there’s more ground to cover.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the Mountain State expanded telehealth flexibility and increased access to care across state lines for patients. Gov. Jim Justice’s executive order helps people battling chronic conditions such as diabetes — which affects one in 10 West Virginians — have access to a care team to help manage their condition. Similarly, people living in medically underserved areas are able to access out-of-state providers to receive needed primary care, mental health treatment and even dentistry.
Thanks to these state reforms, more people have been able to receive care — whether for COVID-19 or not — while continuing to social distance, and patient access to health care has substantially increased despite an ongoing public health crisis. It is my hope that the West Virginia Legislature will expand the list of telehealth-eligible providers and make these reforms permanent so that West Virginians may continue to have more access to affordable, quality care.
I am a practicing physician — I’ve seen up close and personally how expanded telehealth benefits the health care system as a whole and my individual patients. The Trump administration’s attention to the power of telehealth should be applauded. And policymakers at the federal and state levels should continue his efforts to expand telehealth and invest in needed technologies so that more Americans in rural America may fully reap the benefits of a 21st-century health care system.
Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, represents Senate District 17 and is a physician.