President Trump’s national emergency declaration over the coronavirus has occasioned considerable speculation on how America will change, but little of that guesswork has been directed at our post-pandemic healthcare. Justifiably our attention is preoccupied with the extent to which the virus will spread, the lives that might be lost, and the ramifications of containment measures on Americans’ financial security. However, as the President stated in his address announcing the national emergency, the changes being implemented to combat the coronavirus will leave an “indelible print for the future, in case something like this happens again.” What the president omitted is that this indelible print will extend far beyond the realm of infectious diseases. It will improve the very infrastructure for American healthcare delivery.
The Centers for Disease Control has indicated the coronavirus is spread mainly from person-to-person in close contact with one another. Moreover, the elderly population is among the populations with the highest risk from this virus. This has led the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to modify temporarily their rules governing their use of telehealth technology. Medicare beneficiaries will now be able to receive a broad range of medical services through telehealth platforms such as online video, phone, and online patient portals. These virtual visits will enable seniors to access vital healthcare at home and avoid the risks attendant to an in-person visit at a doctor’s office or hospital. Prior to the coronavirus, Medicare largely restricted their telehealth coverage to rural populations and they still required these populations to travel to local medical offices for telehealth visits since home-based sessions were prohibited.
While the changes to CMS telehealth rules are temporary, we should expect that many will be made permanent in the future. The successful use of telehealth with a vulnerable community will validate the benefits of the telehealth model as a whole. Most importantly, the ability for doctors to provide care remotely across state lines during the coronavirus will leave lingering questions over why this practice is often prohibited. State regulators will have to justify why proper oversight of healthcare providers must include policies that are little more than economic protectionism for resident doctors. Inasmuch as current policymaking is exploring ways to make future epidemics less economically disruptive, state regulators will be forced to abandon rules that impede the optimal function of telehealth.
In contrast to telehealth’s geographic expansion, medical supply chains will likely sustain tactical contractions. For example, the United States’ dependence on China for pharmaceutical supplies has exposed a latent risk to our national health. Discussions of the coronavirus in Chinese state media have included suggestions of blocking critical pharmaceutical supplies to U.S. drug makers. The value of global medical supply chains, as a result, is being re-evaluated. The president has downplayed the risks related to this international dependency but there are already calls for renewing the domestic manufacture of pharmaceuticals and various medical devices. The first step in this process, The Defense Production Act (DPA), has been invoked by the president.
The fog of battle, even a public health battle, makes it difficult to recognize the future approaching after fighting ceases. Difficult, but not impossible. America’s healthcare infrastructure is on the cusp of meaningful reform. This future will witness new trends in healthcare access. Remote care conveyed electronically will become more widely adopted and will have positive effects on the cost of healthcare delivery. Hand-in-hand with this shift in doctor access, though, will be the widespread public recognition that healthcare is a matter of national security. Thoughts of personal health will intermingle with those for the health of the nation.
Kev Coleman is the President of AssociationHealthPlans.com. He is a nationally recognized expert on American healthcare whose numerous research studies have informed both government and media discussions of insurance reform.