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Angus King represents Maine in the U.S. Senate.
The coronavirus pandemic has tragically taken the lives of more than 2,800 Maine people and forced us all to make difficult lifestyle changes. But there is at least one silver lining from COVID: how health care providers, insurers and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services accelerated the adoption of telehealth. In a transformation for patient care around Maine, instead of making a long winter drive to see your doctor, all you needed was a cellphone or a laptop and a high-speed internet connection to receive medical care from the safety and comfort of your home.
Telemedicine has become an indispensable component of our health care system and a resource that many Maine people utilize. It lets rural families attend appointments more regularly, provides urgent care without the need for huge emergency room bills, and reduces potential exposure to disease for at-risk Maine people. The ways we receive medical care are changing, and the advancement of telemedicine means it’s changing for the better. Unfortunately, these expanded services are only authorized through 2024, so Congress needs to permanently extend them to prevent a devastating rollback to pre-pandemic conditions.
The good news is, we have a roadmap to an expanded telehealth future, and it has strong bipartisan support. I am encouraging my Congressional colleagues to pass the bipartisan CONNECT for Health Act and the Telehealth Modernization Act as soon as possible. These bills make the current telehealth flexibilities permanent and ensure Medicare beneficiaries can continue enjoying access to telemedicine. I hope that private insurers continue to follow suit for the long haul as these are critical steps to ensure availability, continuity and quality of care.
However, hurdles still remain in the federal extension process: availability and access. To be successful past 2024, telemedicine needs changes in existing laws and additional federal investment to ensure that Maine people can continue visiting their doctors in convenient ways.
First, we need to ensure red tape is not blocking people from seeing a doctor that they have been visiting for years. Currently, the availability of telemedicine is dependent on each state’s licensing regulations. In other words, Maine licensed doctors can’t provide medical services remotely if the patient is not also present in Maine. That just makes no sense. Patients and doctors should be able to maintain ongoing relationships, no matter where they are in the United States. This is why I introduced the CARE for Mental Health Professionals Act, and have co-sponsored the TREAT Act, to address the interstate licensing issues.
Access to high-speed, affordable broadband also remains a barrier to widespread adoption of telemedicine. Fortunately, Congress is making significant progress to bring these game-changing connections to rural, underserved communities. We recently passed the two largest investments in broadband infrastructure ever, with the bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act and the American Rescue Plan. In the years ahead, Maine is expected to receive over $400 million to improve connectivity through affordable high-speed, future-proof broadband infrastructure. This, in turn, will help expand the reach of telehealth opportunities in all corners of our state.
We don’t have to imagine the benefits of what this looks like: one Maine hospital system told me they had a 240-fold increase in the number of people using its telehealth services since the onset of the pandemic. This means fewer missed appointments and healthier Maine people — a win for Maine patients, doctors and payors alike.
It’s going to take a lot of work to secure the availability and accessibility of telehealth, but I’m confident it’s possible. Maine people have always put aside their differences when it comes to improving our community, and I believe Washington can do the same. We can all agree that quality health care for our family and neighbors is of the utmost importance, and it seems a bipartisan consensus is possible. I hope Congress can meet Maine people where they are — on Matinicus or in downtown Bangor — to make telehealth available and reliable for years to come. Our communities depend on it.