Montanans Could Lose Access to Telemedicine After COVID-19
Telemedicine helped close the distance during the pandemic and was especially popular with seniors. Montana should continue to use what works.
It took a pandemic and an order from President Donald Trump for Montana to allow patients to get doctor visits over their telephones.
Wide-open spaces and sparsely populated areas make Montana a challenging place for health care access. The entire state is designated by the federal government as “medically underserved in some way.”
Recent reports have focused on the digital divide’s role in access to telemedicine – highlighting the lack of proper technology or internet access in areas with shortages of health care. Congress even handed out $200 million in the CARES Act and used other programs to help connect patients with internet access to telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While high-speed internet and cellphone coverage do miss large portions of Montana, very few people are without telephone service.
Despite this, government regulations sometimes prevent, or in Montana’s case prohibit, doctors from picking up the telephone and caring for their patients.
The Trump administration realized this, and on March 17 expanded telemedicine delivery to increase access to care amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the changes was permission for doctors to use “any non-public facing remote communication product that is available to communicate with patients,” including audio-only telephones.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock followed their lead on March 20, using his emergency authority to waive numerous Montana regulations. Those included the state’s prohibition on audio-only telemedicine, which Bullock had signed into law in 2013.
During the following months, 27% of Montana seniors on Medicare used telemedicine to talk with their primary care providers, with almost 12,000 Montana seniors using audio-only telephones. Many used telemedicine to receive needed mental health care. This was all a direct result of reducing government regulations that were a barrier to health care.
At least 10 other states also took emergency actions to waive government restrictions on telemedicine. But like Montana, these orders will expire when the emergency ends, once again putting up roadblocks between patients and their doctors. Unique to Montana will be the physical distance that too often separates patient and doctor, and that telemedicine bridged.
If expanding access to health care is the priority, lawmakers should permanently remove restrictions on telemedicine that were waived during COVID-19. The bottom line is it shouldn’t take a crisis to allow doctors to pick up the phone and treat their patients.