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Telehealth Essential for Millions to Continue Access to Health Care Once Pandemic Is Over

Contact: Amy Simmons Farber 202 309 0338

Actions by federal and state governments to expand telehealth policies during the COVID-19 pandemic have been a lifeline for Community Health Centers and patients, but unless lawmakers ensure these policies continue into the future, millions of health center patients could lose access to care.

A recent analysis by the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) reveals that an overwhelming majority of health centers (96 percent) predict patients will have a harder time accessing care and suffer poorer health outcomes unless flexible telehealth policies are continued. At the onset of the pandemic, health centers ramped up virtual check-ins, audio-only visits and e-visits for a range of services.  Nearly all (98 percent) health centers provided telehealth services at some point during the pandemic to their 30 million patients, compared to only 43 percent of health centers before the pandemic. The expansion was spurred by actions of Congress and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to loosen pre-pandemic Medicare and Medicaid telehealth restrictions. The flexibilities and boosts in Medicare reimbursement allow health centers to reach more vulnerable patients, lower rates of missed appointments, and make it easier to treat chronic health conditions.

“As mission-driven innovators, health centers reach beyond the exam room to reach patients where they are. Telehealth is a logical accompaniment, if not a game changer, to expand access to care,” said Ron Yee, MD, Chief Medical Officer of NACHC.  “The need is especially critical in rural America, where hospital closures have forced people to travel long distances to see a provider. The pandemic forced health centers to adapt telehealth as a tool to stay connected to patients at home.”

Many of the current telehealth flexibilities will expire upon the declared end of the Public Health Emergency (PHE), unless federal and state lawmakers take action. This includes recognizing health centers as distant site providers, eliminating originating site restrictions to allow providers to deliver care — and patients to receive care — from any location, and ensuring adequate reimbursement for telehealth services at rates equal to an in-person visit. Lastly, health centers must be able to continue providing audio-only telehealth visits, especially to patients in rural areas and seniors who do not have access to broadband or smartphones.

Without action, many health center patients – especially vulnerable seniors, rural residents and people who live below the poverty level and suffer from chronic health conditions – will fall through the cracks.  Patients who need behavioral health services and suffer substance use disorders – which skyrocketed during the pandemic – are at particular risk.  The range of concerns highlighted in the NACHC telehealth survey cited:

  • 90 percent of health centers surveyed predicted there will be greater difficulty reaching vulnerable populations.
  • 95 percent predicted there will be reduced access to care.
  • 71 percent said there will be worse health outcomes for patients with chronic health conditions.

Among those concerned about the future is William Crumpton, Chief Executive Officer of Compassion Health Care, Inc., located in rural Caswell County, NC. “For our patients, audio-only telehealth capabilities have been an important lifeline and often the only mechanism for our center to connect with our largely rural and elderly patients, many of whom still have rotary phones in their homes, don’t drive a car, do not have smartphone technology. We can’t leave these patients behind and take away a tool that they have come to rely on to talk to their provider.”

There are nearly 100 bills pending in Congress to make policies supporting audio and virtual telehealth visits permanent.

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Established in 1971, the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) serves as the national voice for America’s Health Centers and as an advocate for health care access for the medically underserved and uninsured.

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