Feb 18, 2022

Members of Congress Highlight Critical Role of Virtual Care in Addressing Mental Health Crisis

This week, the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance and U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a pair of hearings on America’s mental health crisis and barriers to behavioral care. During the hearings, legislators highlighted the critical role of telehealth in combating our nation’s mental health crisis and improving behavioral care outcomes. This comes on the heels of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (HELP) and U.S. House Committee on Ways & Means hearings on the mental health crisis at the start of the month. 

During this week’s hearings, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle emphasized the critical role of telehealth in addressing mental health challenges, recognized the tremendous burden of arbitrary in-person requirements for behavioral telehealth visits and highlighted the urgent need for action to protect telehealth access. 

Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID), Ranking Member, Senate Finance Committee: “As this Committee works in a bipartisan way to advance the conversation on mental health, we must not only identify the complexity and scope of the problems at hand, but also explore innovative, sustainable and concrete policy solutions. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to develop meaningful measures to meet some of the nation’s mental health challenges, including by expanding access to telehealth services, supporting our mental health workforce, and better integrating physical and mental health care services.” 

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH): “It seems to me that telehealth is one of the few silver linings in an otherwise dark cloud of COVID. And, with regard to substance abuse treatment, that there has been some real improvements. 

Senator John Barrasso (R-WY): “And then telehealth is something we’ve used from a mental health standpoint long before the pandemic. I think the pandemic has brought mental health, as well as other kinds of health care to the fore, in terms of the ability to try to use telehealth much more productively. I think we’re hopefully fast forwarded with the acceptance of, as Senator Cardin was just saying, the acceptance of telehealth. 

Congresswoman Diana DeGette (D-CO), Chair, Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations: “Virtual connection proved critical to protecting our emotional well-being. We also addressed this in many of our relief efforts. More must be done to understand the protection benefits while at the same time mitigating the harms because virtual tools also proven essential for mental health counseling. Telehealth counseling and healthcare enabled millions of people to connect with providers at a time when need for these services surged. But we know that access to mental health services remains an on-going hurdle for too many people, particularly children and people in vulnerable communities. Stigma, high-cost, and limited coverage and other systemic inquires all pose barriers to care.” 

Congressman John Joyce, M.D. (R-PA): “I think the all-of-the-above approach that you directed – expanding mobile health, telehealth, telephone health – I think that those are all important options that we need to continue to evaluate.

Congressman Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ): “The disparities between communities are tremendous. Throwing money at therapies alone is just not enough. We need telecommunications and telemedicine. We need people out in the field. We are losing our practitioners and providers at terrible rates – this is a dire time.”

Congressman Kelly Armstrong (R-ND): “Over the past two years, I’ve consistently heard from both providers and patients in North Dakota about how they benefit from expanded access to telehealth. This was important prior to the pandemic in rural states but obviously has been escalated over the last several years. A report published in December 2021 by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that the share of Medicare telehealth visits increased 63-fold in 2020. The report also found that one-third of behavioral health specialist visits were completed by telehealth. This is a figure that I’m not surprised by as I continue to hear from patients who are more comfortable with virtual visits for mental health over in-person evaluation. These constituents face everyday barriers to mental health care access such as limited providers in rural areas, unpredictable North Dakota winters preventing travel, and just overall small community stigma. However, now they are no longer putting off care as expected telehealth has afforded this increased participation in mental health services. The COVID 19 pandemic resulted in a rapid transition across our state. My state reacted quickly and in the early months of the pandemic, March and April 2020 saw the number of health providers and behavioral health clinics using telehealth grow from 71 to over 350 providers. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 permanently expanded access to telehealth for mental health services. I’m proud this legislation will allow Medicare beneficiaries to receive telehealth services for mental health from the comfort and privacy of their home. However, when the public health emergency ends, the patients will need an in-person exam with a provider within six months before the initial telehealth encounter. This is a huge hurdle in rural America.”

According to a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, virtual mental health care improves treatment engagement, care retention, and patient satisfaction, leading to improved long-term health outcomes. And while it can take an average of 48 days before a patient is seen for behavioral health services, many patients simply cannot wait that long. In contrast, telehealth services can be readily available in minutes

Learn more about Telehealth Access for America (TAFA) and permanent solutions to protect access to telehealth HERE.