Advocates hope pandemic-era telehealth expansion becomes permanent

Posted at 11:44 AM, Jan 14, 2022

The expansion of telehealth services has been keeping patients safe throughout the pandemic. Now, many cities and states are looking to pass permanent legislation to keep that expansion in place.

Many advocacy groups are especially pushing for the new ways health care workers have been able to treat opioid use disorder.

Before the pandemic, patients could only fill a prescription online after meeting with a doctor in person. The telehealth expansion eliminated that in-person appointment requirement.

"Time is of the essence when folks are trying to get help and trying to seek treatment, and the quickest, most efficient way to get that kind of clinically-appropriate care is to go online at a time and place of your choosing," said Kyle Zebley, the VP of public policy at the American Telemedicine Association

Before the pandemic, the opioid crisis was already killing tens of thousands of Americans a year. An analysis from Harvard shows drug overdose deaths have gone up 30% since the arrival of COVID-19 — a number that could have been even worse if telehealth treatment wasn't available.

Those opposed to keeping the expansion on opioid use disorder treatment worry it could lead to further substance abuse. But the American Telemedicine Association says there's no evidence that online prescriptions are any more likely to be abused than a prescription received in person.

"In our conversations with folks in the federal level in the Biden Administration, we've seen no evidence of a significant diversion of these drugs for illicit activities, so we think they're already are safeguards in place in terms of holding licensed medical professionals to account if they are not operating within the standard of care," Zebley said.

As COVID-19 continues to surge due to the omicron variant, Zebley hopes the federal expansion on telehealth benefits will remain. To become permanent nationwide, Congress would need to work on a bill for the president to sign when the temporary order expires.