The COVID-19 pandemic brought the need for innovative, flexible medical treatment options into keen focus. Now, lawmakers in the General Assembly are weighing reforms that would take strides toward offering out-of-state medical providers the opportunity to consult with patients virtually in North Carolina.
Telemedicine and other telehealth options have increased in popularity as patients get the chance to connect with providers over a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Users say this approach offers several advantages; Connecting virtually reduces the likelihood of spreading disease, while reducing the burden on local doctors’ offices, emergency rooms, and hospitals.
Public health officials also believe increasing the reach of telehealth would help people living in North Carolina’s 80 rural counties who don’t have convenient access to care. It would also give aid the elderly and disabled who worry about in-person visits.
National polls now indicate that nine-in-10 Americans plan to continue using telehealth for non-urgent medical needs after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.
Lawmakers were already looking at telehealth expansion prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic has amped up that need, said Jordan Roberts, government affairs associate for the John Locke Foundation.
“Where telehealth can help the most is by supplementing what we already know as health care,” Roberts said. “Health care providers and patients can use telehealth as a gatekeeper to the health care system, reducing the inefficiencies and transaction costs of obtaining health care. One of telehealth’s greatest benefits is connecting patients to health professionals over great distances, but it can also be used between providers to share information in real-time.”
Current N.C. law puts up a number of barriers to this type of treatment. A coronavirus expert in another state, for example, would first need to become licensed in North Carolina to treat patients via telemedicine. Experts urge that any reform effort should wave this requirement for out-of-state medical professionals in good standing. Other states — including Kansas and West Virginia — have taken this step.
Gov. Roy Cooper also has the option to make this happen through executive action, which would build on Cooper’s COVID-19-related executive order that waived in-state licensure requirements for health professionals from another state.
Roberts points to four crucial components a telehealth bill must have to improve care in North Carolina. First, unless medically necessary, lawmakers should remove any requirement of face-to-face visits before telehealth can be offered. Second, lawmakers should avoid inadvertently excluding future technological developments in virtual care. Third, telehealth visits should be permitted for all medical professionals, not just doctors. Fourth, across-state-line access should be available without unnecessary bureaucracy or costs.
“As telehealth continues to be incorporated into more practices and more patients become comfortable with the technology, we must ensure that regulations keep pace with the adoption. Government tends to move slower than technological innovation, so ensuring that regulations don’t hinder innovation is key,” Roberts said.
One important way to achieve this is by avoiding insurance mandates for telehealth or payment rates, Roberts added. “Unwise mandates open the door to more spending on services that may add little value to the patient,” he said.