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EDITORIAL: Make advances in telemedicine permanent

One of the encouraging effects of our coronavirus precautions has been increased access to telehealth services. Because of the influx of smartphones with built-in cameras, as well as the rapid growth of video conferencing tools and secure, online file-sharing portals, millions of Americans can now “see” health care providers without ever having to step foot in a doctor’s office.

This is especially helpful for those who are still concerned about meeting in person during the current pandemic, those who have limited mobility or those who live in rural areas.

As J.D. Tuccille of Reason.com points out, however, these advancements in telehealth were not from the fact that virtual doctor visits suddenly made sense to millions of people. Instead, they were achieved because the federal government temporarily suspended the regulatory barriers that kept patients from seeking such care — barriers that should be rolled back permanently.

Critics argue that not all medical consultations, procedures or treatments can be provided remotely. That’s certainly true. But there are countless services that can be efficiently offered online, helping people avoid multiple long drives and reducing opportunities for contracting COVID-19 or other diseases.

In the long run, the practice also can be a money-saver, as many private insurers are now recognizing by encouraging patients to take advantage of remote care options. Mr. Tuccille also notes that the pandemic resulted in the lifting of a Medicare requirement that reimbursed health care professionals only for telehealth consultations that took place outside the home in remote locations.

The emergency order also resulted in the Department of Health and Human Services making other common-sense policy changes. For example, providers can now treat patients across state lines — and those patients can be new patients, not just existing ones. These virtual visits no longer have to be conducted via specialized software, but can instead be held via platforms including Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Skype and Zoom. Practitioners can also now prescribe controlled substances to patients without them having to be at a hospital or clinic registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

While these would be positive, helpful changes during the best of times, they are essential, lifesaving measures during our current crisis. As Mr. Tuccille noted, President Donald Trump has ordered that some of these revisions be extended, but his order applies mostly to rural areas and can just as easily be reversed. Politicians and regulators like to tell us that things will never go back to the way they were before the pandemic. Perhaps. But one way that would be a positive development would be for them to make permanent the federal reforms that allow easier access to telemedicine.

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