PA eased telehealth regulations during the pandemic. What happens if the waiver expires?

Cydney Cooper photographed with her dog. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)

by Jourdan Hicks, PublicSource

At first, the pandemic actually kept us in our homes. Y’all remember that? Being on lockdown?

For many, COVID and the response to it only intensified the need for health care. And by health care, I mean physical and mental.

But have the body and the mind been treated with the same importance? That’s what we’re trying to figure out within the realm of virtual health care, or telehealth.

The state of Pennsylvania made it widely available, the same for your doctor as your family therapist. The state directed practitioners to continue patient care and services through telehealth to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Insurance companies appear to have fallen in line, too, and covered telehealth similarly for physical and mental health needs. Among Medicare recipients, the use of telehealth soared 13,000% over pre-pandemic rates for utilization, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

There are concerns with telehealth over insurance coverage, privacy and Internet availability, along with social and racial equity concerns. Latinx and Black patients use telehealth at significantly lower rates as a result of disparities in technology access, digital literacy and provider bias.

The unprecedented access to telehealth was appreciated by many patients and doctors, like the patients receiving physical therapy without leaving home and doctors seeing more patients in a day and managing those more effectively. It was a sigh of relief not only to keep safe from the virus, but also for reasons that existed before the pandemic. Telehealth is generally a more accessible experience for people with disabilities or those lacking transportation or providers near their homes. And it’s simply convenient to avoid waiting rooms and sterile offices whenever possible.

But some investments in telehealth offerings in Pennsylvania could expire at the end of June if the pandemic waiver Act 14 from April 2020 expires. So, what’s going on is right now is there is no law allowing or prohibiting telemedicine in Pennsylvania. Without an explicit law or waiver extension of Act 14 by the PA General Assembly, access and insurance coverage for telehealth could be rolled back, disrupting Pennsylvanians’ access to both medical and health care.

Also, it may not be. Here’s the rub: We just don’t know. Because the access to telehealth for any kind of health need is not codified. Are we are comfortable with just a little more uncertainty when it comes to health care, health needs? Let’s look at the opportunities and challenges of telehealth and what’s at risk for Pennsylvanians who’ve become accustomed to using telehealth for their mental health care.

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