Susan Cheff, medical director of the Helen Hunt Health Center, speaks with her patient Betty Fadrigon during a telehealth appointment on May 22 in Old Town. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

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Willow Wind is an undergraduate communications student at The University of Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. She is an intern of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Entering our second year of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, health care coverage and accessibility remain concerns for many of us. Yet only some of us have our rights being recognized in health care law. Over 60,000 Mainers identify as LGBTQ, and their needs continue to be overlooked at a time when support is needed most. These Mainers are disproportionately impacted by the effects and restrictions associated with COVID-19 due to increased risk of home insecurity, economic insecurity, and reliable support systems.

The pandemic has increased the need for mental health resources and gender reaffirming care, but recent legislation ignores this problem. Mental health struggles continue to spike, which has significant implications for LGBTQ youth who are already more than twice as likey as their peers to attempt suicide. Instead of giving these issues more attention, essential services are being stripped from COVID-19 patient bills. If we do not write pieces of legislation to explicitly include LGBTQ communities, we are risking the healthcare rights of more than 60,000 Mainers.

One example of this occurring already is in LD 1. This emergency act, titled “An Act to Establish the COVID-19 Patient Bill of Rights” was approved by Maine Legislature this month and is moving forward. While this is good news, it is not a complete victory. A patient bill of rights should consider the needs of vulnerable populations, yet it falls short.

The limitations of this otherwise impactful bill are already having consequences on LGBTQ populations. Telehealth provisions, which made minor improvements, were removed from LD 1, to be discussed later in the legislative session. Telehealth services are vital during the pandemic, because they offer safe, accessible and affordable means for patients to seek life-saving services. Providers that offer telehealth appointments are able to reach populations that have limited access to care, including LGBTQ communities. So, rather than make small changes to telehealth, as LD 1 as originally written, would have done, lawmakers need to do more to make telehealth services more broadly available and accessible.

Telehealth is responsible for helping many transgender and nonbinary patients access to hormone therapy. These patients may otherwise lack the resources to see specialists while restrictions are in place. Being denied hormone therapy is equivalent to another patient being denied medication. Research supports that hormone therapy in transgender patients reduces anxiety and depression, improving quality of life. This is especially true given that some services have been jeopardized altogether during the pandemic.

All of these factors being at play indicates a widespread need for affordable, accessible mental health services. After last March’s lockdown, there was a 4,300 percent increase in demand for telehealth services nationwide. Overall, it is estimated that 76 percent of Americans want to use telehealth services, but only 46 percent of Americans actually are. This indicates a greater problem of access and affordability. These are issues that can be solved through legislation, and should be a priority when lawmakers discuss telehealth.

LGBTQ patients are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and are at the forefront of the mental health crisis. Telehealth is essential for these patients. Mainers need a COVID-19 patient bill of rights that is built for all of us. This demands action for LGBTQ protections.