BOSTON — Telehealth has been crucial to the state's coronavirus response and now a push is underway on Beacon Hill to make it a permanent part of the health care system.
Gov. Charlie Baker expanded access to telehealth services through executive orders meant to help hospitals and health care providers respond to a surge in COVID-19 cases while continuing to care for patients' other medical needs.
The expansion also helped doctors — whose practices were forced to close for in-person visits under state restrictions — stay afloat financially during the crisis.
Now, after several months of allowing health care providers to diagnose and treat patients remotely through videos and phone calls, there is growing consensus within the medical community that telemedicine should stick around beyond the state of emergency.
Don Berwick, a longtime health care expert and member of the state's Health Policy Commission, said telemedicine has proven its effectiveness during the pandemic.
"One of the big questions we face after the pandemic is over do we want to keep telemedicine — is it a better way to provide care?" said Berwick, a former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. "I personally think it is."
On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are taking steps to make expanded telemedicine services a permanent part of the state's health care system.
One proposal, which could be taken up by the Senate next week, would require health insurers to reimburse for telehealth at the same rate as in-person services for the next two years. It would also direct the state to study the pandemic's impact on the health care system's accessibility, quality and fiscal sustainability.
"Telehealth has the ability to expand access to care, improve the efficiency of care, and has been an essential tool for enabling patients to continue to receive care at a time when in-person appointments are not advisable for public health reasons," the bill's authors wrote. "This bill will make telehealth services permanently available for Massachusetts patients after the COVID-19 state of emergency has ended."
The nonprofit group Health Care for All praised the proposal for a requirement that telehealth also include dental care and audio-only telephone calls to assist patients who don't have access to a computer. Amy Rosenthal, the group's executive director, said the changes will ensure that "patients are put first not only during the pandemic but also in the aftermath."
The legislation, if approved, would effectively extend Baker's executive orders including one that requires all insurers cover medically necessary telemedicine visits.
Baker, a former health care executive, has praised the role of telemedicine during the pandemic but hasn't said if he supports making the requirements permanent.
Similar efforts have drawn opposition from private insurers, who argue those decisions should be negotiated as part of a contract between a provider and health plan.
Lori Pellegrini, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, said in a statement that insurers are "strong supporters of telehealth" but that any permanent changes to reimbursement rate for telehealth must consider the impact on the state's health care costs, which are among the highest in the nation.
"Telehealth has been an important tool to ensure members have continued access to provider services during closures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, but we must build on its promise of providing cost-savings for employers and consumers in the future," Pellegrini said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.