GUEST COMMENTARY

Lopez: Shoving patients off telehealth cliff is bad medicine

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Lucas, a 35-year-old husband and father of three young girls in Logan, Utah, is facing a difficult decision: whether or not to incur the costly expenses of traveling to Boston for follow-up and care for his rare bone cancer.

For Lucas, it comes down to the tradeoff between his health and his family’s financial future should he not survive.

What makes Lucas’ plight even more heartbreaking is that if he lived across his state’s southern border in Arizona, he may not be forced to make this gut-wrenching decision.

During the pandemic, the federal government and states across the country relaxed bureaucratic rules and red tape so that Americans could more readily access telehealth services, which allow patients to obtain high-quality medical care from the comfort of their own home using a computer, smartphone, or landline phone. Unfortunately, most states failed to make these flexibilities permanent, shoving some of their most vulnerable patients off the telehealth cliff.

Last year in Arizona, the Goldwater Institute enacted House Bill 2454, which passed with strong bipartisan support, making the state’s temporary telehealth relaxations permanent. The first-in-the-nation legislation is now permitting out-of-state physicians to provide telehealth services, eliminating the requirement for preexisting provider-patient relationships and allowing for both audio and/or video telehealth options, among other reforms.

The bill was built upon telehealth “proof of concept” success experienced both in Arizona and across the country — and it is benefitting some of the Grand Canyon state’s most vulnerable patients.

Take Claudia, for example. She spent six hours a day, twice a week behind the wheel of her car, making the round-trip drive through the Arizona desert from her home in Yuma, Arizona, to Phoenix to take her disabled daughter to regular appointments at a medical facility that could provide the care her daughter needed.

Thankfully, most of those long days of travel now take place just once a month due to Arizona’s reform. Claudia’s daughter not only has access to the leading specialists, but most of her appointments can now take place from the comfort of their home.

But this reform also promises to bolster hospitals’ ability to access specialists, especially for those hospitals serving smaller and rural communities. Arizona’s law provides an important pathway for medical facilities to rapidly scale up and down needed expertise and assistance. For example, a patient suffering from a serious stroke can now have her community hospital, through remote monitoring, share her vital statistics with a leading specialist at another facility across the country.

This means she can obtain medical guidance that had been previously unavailable because of the needless regulations restricting this access, as well as the prohibitively expensive cost that would have come with bringing that expertise in-house.

There is a better way for patients like Lucas and the countless more who now face similar obstacles to getting needed care. The fundamental question at stake is: should government rules and red tape deny needed care? Arizona lawmakers didn’t think so and now that the government has removed these antiquated laws and rules, Arizonans have more access to care both inside and outside the state.

State lawmakers across the country have the ability — and responsibility — to follow Arizona’s lead and put patients first. That way, every patient, especially the most vulnerable, can have access to the care that best meets their needs with the technology and innovation that are already available.

These types of reforms allow patients and their families to focus more on recovery while enjoying a higher quality of life and a reduced financial burden. America’s patients need an immediate emergency rescue from the inaction that created the telehealth cliff.

Naomi Lopez is the Vice President for Healthcare Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

telehealth, health, medicine