The COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) created pathways to ensure that we could respond to the pandemic and also opened up new ways of healthcare in our country. In some ways, it pushed healthcare forward, but in other ways it created a crisis that we needed to respond to.
The public health emergency expanded telehealth and virtual care
Before the pandemic, telehealth and virtual care were mostly used for rural healthcare and on Native American reservations. There were certain pilot programs underway around telehealth, but it wasn’t widely adopted. After the pandemic and public health waivers, the ability to have telehealth in your house was a monumental shift in healthcare. Before, you had to drive to a hospital or a center to receive treatment. Now, you can sit in your house and receive services and talk to your provider. When the PHE expires on May 11th, it will be imperative to figure out whether we continue providing telehealth services as part of the healthcare delivery system in the US.
What happens with telehealth with the COVID-19 PHE ending?
As part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which was signed earlier this year, Medicare extended telehealth benefits to December 31, 2024. During that period, providers will be looking at the adoption of telehealth, pulling data, and seeing where telehealth visits are more impactful on your health versus an in-person visit. As for private insurance plans, it’s up to each one individually to adopt telehealth services. Many have decided that telehealth is an impactful way to deliver care and have built those services into their insurance coverage.
How does access to testing, vaccines, PPE, etc. change with the PHE ending?
Access was a top priority during the PHE, which is why we saw testing centers and vaccination clinics pop up. As PHE waivers go away and we look at this pandemic in a different light, we’ll be back to getting tested by physicians and getting vaccinated as well, or possibly in a different model. During the pandemic, you could go to any doctor’s office or other locations such as a center to access testing and vaccines. When the PHE expires, testing and vaccinations for COVID-19 will be integrated into our current care delivery system. One innovation of the pandemic was the expansion of vaccinations in pharmacies and in other models outside of the physician’s office. This was something that was already starting in the market before the pandemic began, and now consumers are more comfortable going into a pharmacy to get a shot or other services than ever before.
The federal PHE is ending, but state laws are still at play
We need to look at both state and federal law when determining whether testing, vaccines, telehealth services, etc. that were available during the pandemic will remain in place. Some of those flexibilities were already part of the law before the pandemic, while others came with PHE waivers. A lot of these laws are state-by-state, which can be dissatisfying for people who may not be able to have a telehealth visit or receive a COVID-19 test or vaccination in the same way as people in other states.
The PHE gave us a glimpse of a virtual healthcare model
The most important focus when the PHE ends will be how healthcare is delivered across the country with the idea of a potential virtual model. At the beginning of the pandemic, patients and practitioners were hesitant about the adoption of telehealth because they weren’t certain how it would feel to have a screen between them and the patient. Since then, we’ve seen success with the adoption of telehealth services, with many patients and practitioners still using it. It’s an exciting time in healthcare to see if we can create a new model where you don’t necessarily have to go into a building to seek care. We’re figuring out what the future of healthcare looks like in the US.