Telehealth services are good for health and business – Congress should support them

Fill me in: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth services have become an integral part of patient access to care, reducing travel and wait times for physician appointments and helping to address longstanding disparities among communities of color.

Flexibility in benefit design is critical to increasing access to this treatment modality and is now more widely available due to the passage of the Coronavirus Assistance and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020. In the CARES Act, Congress expanded the ability for certain high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) to offer telehealth health services on a pre-deductible basis while maintaining Health Savings Account (HSA) eligibility. Without this flexibility, these HSA-eligible HDHPs would not be able to allow beneficiaries to access health care services in practice until the deductible is met.

This expansion of telehealth services has increased the availability of primary care services for patients to engage virtually with healthcare providers, which was critical in the early phases of the pandemic and has proven to reduce wait times to access care. It also saves employees from taking extra time off work to travel to the provider and wait for an appointment, which in many cases has served as a barrier to accessing services.

Without action from Congress, this flexibility will end at the end of 2022, potentially cutting off access to vital health care services for millions of Americans.

What’s at stake: Access to telehealth benefits patients across the socioeconomic spectrum, including when it facilitates access to:

  • Mental health: Virtual appointments for mental health services expand the ease and accessibility of care for millions of Americans. Without expanding the current flexibility in plan design, employees with HSA-eligible HDHPs will be able to access telehealth services only after meeting the plan’s deductible, creating another barrier to treatment.
  • Care for the mother and before birth: Access to care through telehealth can also eliminate disparities in access to maternal and prenatal care by providing patients with greater choice and flexibility in providers and scheduling through a virtual, off-site method.
  • Underserved areas: Telehealth services also make it easier for patients in underserved areas to access vital care where there are fewer providers or specialists.

Telehealth is popular with employees: Employees report positive sentiments regarding access to telehealth and telemental health services. According to a 2021 Morning Consult national survey sponsored by the Alliance for Healthcare Advocacy:

  • 72% people who used telehealth to see their primary care doctor or a doctor in their insurance network
  • 84% have rated themselves or a family member’s previous visit(s) as good or excellent
  • One fifth of insured American adults have had an in-person telehealth appointment for their mental health
  • Nearly two-thirds are willing to receive mental health care virtually through a telehealth system

It’s also good for business: Data shows that employers who offer a variety of plan options have employees who are motivated to stay with their companies, reducing recruiting and vacancy costs. Additionally, employers that offer wellness programs tend to have a healthier workforce and spend less on direct medical costs and lost labor.

The good news: There is bipartisan, bicameral support in Congress to expand access to telehealth by providing flexibility for plans and employers to offer pre-deductible telehealth in HSA-eligible plans, and the House urges Congress to pass this legislation in any spending package in the end of the year .

Bottom row: Providing telehealth services is popular and beneficial for both employers and employees. These services provide more flexibility to patients, and Congress should expand the ability of businesses to provide them to their workforce to further improve access to quality, affordable, and accessible care for millions of Americans.

For the authors

Katie Mahoney

Vice President, Health Policy, US Chamber of Commerce

Katie W. Mahoney is vice president of health policy at the US Chamber of Commerce. She is responsible for developing, advocating, and publishing the chamber’s health policy and works with members of Congress, the administration, and regulatory agencies to advance the organization’s health policy. She it also develops regulatory responses for the Chamber and its member companies and deals with substantive areas as part of an overall health policy.

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