As We Mark the End of PHE Anniversary, We Are Reminded of Need for Congress to Enact Permanent Telehealth Protections.

May 15, 2024

The federal COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) declaration ended on May 11, 2023, marking this May as the one-year anniversary. The pandemic taught us many different things and highlighted the importance of implementing effective policies to protect the health and well-being of families everywhere. As such, during this anniversary, we are reminded of the benefits and fragility of current telehealth protections and the need for action to protect patient access to virtual care once and for all and without onerous restrictions. 

Telehealth utilization grew tremendously during the pandemic. Prior to the public health emergency declaration in January 2020, providers delivered only 1.5 percent of health services through telehealth, according to claims data compiled by the COVID-19 Health Care Coalition. After these reforms took effect, providers delivered nearly 24 percent of all services through telehealth. Before the pandemic (during the first half of 2019), only 134,000 Medicare enrollees received virtual care every week. After the flexibilities took effect, the number of enrollees receiving telehealth increased over 7,400 percent to 10.1 million between January and June 2020. Consumer interest in telehealth also significantly increased during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, consumers were slow to adopt telehealth. Only 11 percent  of patients had a telehealth visit in 2019. By the height of the pandemic, utilization had increased fourfold

It has now been one year since the official end of the pandemic – the date the protections were initially set to expire if Congress hadn’t kicked the can down the road until the end of this year on virtual care. Regardless, telehealth remains a crucial tool in expanding access to healthcare, especially for those in rural and traditionally underserved communities. A 2023 study published in the National Library of Medicine found that low-income racial and ethnic minority patients are the most likely to use telehealth. Telehealth is also heavily relied upon by patients with chronic conditions who are required to seek specialty care. 

In addition to telemedicine’s health benefits, there is mounting evidence that telehealth can lower health care spending and reduce taxpayer costs. According to a 2021 analysis from the MedPAC, when Medicare patients chose telehealth for their primary care needs, in-person primary care visits fell by 25 percent. Another analysis showed that between January 2020 and February 2021, the average telehealth users’ monthly health care expenses fell from $1,099 to $425, a 61 percent decline. Telehealth patients’ costs fell faster than in-person patients – the average in-person patient spent $910 per month in January 2020 and $578 in February 2021.

Telehealth doesn’t benefit just the patients either. Permanent telehealth access could reduce provider burnout, leading to less healthcare worker turnover. According to a recent survey, 78 percent of healthcare practitioners agree that being able to provide telehealth services from practitioner-convenient locations would “significantly reduce the challenges of stress, burnout, or fatigue.” Another survey found that 76 percent of physicians found that telehealth allows for increased flexibility over patient care, and 36 percent reported improved work-life balance through telehealth integration. 

The abundance of benefits that telehealth provides is at risk of expiring at the end of this year without imminent action – congress must act now and enact permanent telehealth safeguards without onerous restrictions.

Learn more about how Congress can act now to safeguard access to telehealth HERE.