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Telehealth’s expansion may be here to stay

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As thousands of patients struck by COVID-19 rushed to seek treatment in overcrowded New York City hospitals, intensive care specialists more than 350 miles away at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center stepped up to provide remote assistance to beleaguered colleagues in New York. 

Specialists in Pittsburgh can read the electronic medical records of COVID-19 patients at the New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center in Lower Manhattan and use telemedicine platforms to provide advice, for example, on how to care for patients on ventilators. 

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, a Mississippi Republican who has backed previous bills expanding the use of telehealth, is also seeking to sustain that expansion according to an aide. 

The Congressional Budget Office has consistently estimated that expanding telehealth services would cost the taxpayers more through higher Medicare payments. The CBO, for example, estimated that the current set of waivers allowing physicians to provide more telehealth services during the pandemic would cost taxpayers $500 million more.

At a March 11 hearing of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, Hyde-Smith pressed CBO Director Philip Swagel to explain whether the agency’s analysis considered possible savings that could result from expanded telehealth use.

“If seniors avoid the necessary care because of fears of getting the virus at the doctor’s office, this could lead to higher costs down the road if the virus is not caught earlier and chronic disease is not managed,” Hyde-Smith said about the potential savings.

Watch as CQ Roll Call’s Gopal Ratnam and Georgetown University’s professor of global health law Lawrence Gostin talk about the benefits, drawbacks and the seeming inevitability of expanding telehealth.

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