Industry experts have touted telehealth as a tool to improve healthcare access and quality, adding that the practice could save as much as $4.8 billion in annual healthcare spending. But while using technology to replace the in-person visit has gained credibility and reimbursement opportunities, it's also faced some challenges.
The Senate has a chance to change that on Tuesday, when it is scheduled to vote on the ECHO Act, legislation aimed at better integrating Project ECHO, the pioneering telehealth model developed by the University of New Mexico, and other “distance health” models into health systems nationwide.
The ECHO Act, introduced in April by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), would also boost federal research into the use of telehealth and into its potential to expand and improve healthcare. The law would require those findings to be published and HHS to issue recommendations based on them, as well as a toolkit of best practices for implementing telehealth models.
Many providers and policymakers say that telehealth could bridge serious gaps in the U.S. healthcare system. It can improve care for rural populations and others in healthcare deserts—20% of Americans live in areas with shortages of healthcare providers—by making such care more timely and giving them access to specialists.
Others contend that consultation by phone or video chat is not the same as an in-person exam and should not be paid for as such. Overall, state and federal telehealth legislation and regulations vary widely, as does reimbursement for services.