Embracing technology to improve healthcare access is more critical than ever

During this unprecedented time, one thing is clear: The coronavirus has changed almost everything about life in America and around the globe. Testing, contact tracing, and social distancing measures are some of the most important tools we have to mitigate the spread of this virus, but we also need to focus on innovative ways to keep people connected—especially to crucial health services.

Expanding telehealth services has been one way we’ve done just that. Telehealth helps connect people to their doctors, protects vulnerable populations, and improves access to healthcare for rural areas. And as many high-risk Americans try to minimize their exposure to the coronavirus by limiting in-person medical appointments, telehealth is playing an increasingly important role in our healthcare system.

Expanding telehealth options is especially urgent for older Americans. This pandemic has taken a devastating toll on our nation’s seniors, with estimates indicating that those over 65 have accounted for 8 in 10 coronavirus-related deaths. Unfortunately, safety precautions designed to protect seniors have also left many alone and separated from their loved ones in the past several months.

In my home state of Minnesota, Elsie Dahl celebrated her 91st birthday not with hugs from family members, but by listening to them sing “Happy Birthday” outside the window of her assisted-living facility and sharing cupcakes with her nurses. Similar scenes have played out around the country as nursing facilities closed their doors to visitors to keep their residents safe.

Waving outside a window to our family members may convey our love during these trying times, but it certainly doesn’t suffice for a doctor’s appointment.

That’s why I introduced the Advancing Connectivity during the Coronavirus to Ensure Support for Seniors (ACCESS) Act with Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) Our bipartisan legislation will enhance telehealth support for seniors and increase access to technology for “virtual visits” between seniors and their loved ones during this pandemic. Companion legislation has also been introduced in the House.

Fortunately, there is strong bipartisan support to expand telehealth services. And I have joined many of my colleagues in calling for several temporary telehealth measures to become permanent, including allowing providers to use telehealth to practice across state lines or provide care to new patients.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—which passed in March—included provisions to expand telehealth services for Medicare patients in all settings, including at home, and across the country, not only in rural areas. Our bill will also allow federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics to provide telehealth services, and permit using telehealth to conduct the face-to-face visits required to recertify a patient’s eligibility for hospice care—which are important steps forward.

But as we make telehealth more accessible and move to online health platforms, we also have to make sure that we are protecting the security of Americans’ health information.

Unfortunately, health privacy laws have not kept pace with emerging technology, meaning that mobile health apps—many of which are being used to expand contact tracing—could collect, share and even be used to sell sensitive health data, all without explicit user consent.

We need to make sure that innovation does not come at the expense of consumers’ privacy and that there are adequate safeguards to ensure sensitive health information remains confidential. That’s why I joined Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Dr. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) in introducing bipartisan legislation to protect consumer data privacy while developing contact tracing tools and promoting public health.

I’ve always believed that the moral test of any nation is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. We have a duty to protect the physical, mental and financial well-being of every American—and that has never been more important than right now during this crisis.

The 116th Congress: Policymaking Amid the Pandemic

Source: modernhealthcare.com

Tags: covid-19, pandemic

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