Congress Must Catch up on Telehealth | Opinion

President Trump recently announced plans to extend his historic expansion of Medicare's telehealth offerings beyond the current pandemic. As governor of a state that has led the nation in telehealth policy for decades, I'm excited to see our health care system embrace a technology that has the power to revolutionize health care for 60 million rural Americans.

For over a century, telehealth services have languished in a policy quagmire. Even as technology revolutionized our communication systems, telehealth struggled under the weight of stringent regulations and expensive, proprietary software that made widespread adoption challenging for patients and health care providers.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed all that. Thanks to emergency regulations from the Trump administration, Medicare patients now have the option of receiving health care via commonly available software and phone apps, while gaining access to many additional types of health care professionals. Critically important to rural Alaskans without broadband, phone calls are now an acceptable means of receiving health care. Predictably, telehealth usage by Medicare recipients jumped from just 0.1 percent to nearly 50 percent overnight.

Of course, many of these patients will return to visiting their doctors once a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available. After all, most Americans live within one hour of a high-level trauma center and have reliable access to the many specialists and providers who support these health ecosystems. But for those living in rural America, where nearly 130 community hospitals have closed since 2010, we cannot afford to lose this forward momentum.

Take my home state of Alaska, for example. As many know, the Last Frontier is the largest state in the Union, occupying its own subcontinent and containing the western, northern and even eastern extremities of our nation due to the way the Aleutian chain extends into the Eastern Hemisphere. Very few communities in Alaska contain the necessary population density to support full-service hospitals, much less specialty care centers. Subsequently, about three-quarters of Alaska's health resources are found in Anchorage. Serious health incidents typically require a medivac flight to Anchorage or Seattle, as most communities are not connected to the road system.

And therein lies the problem. Home to the world's largest temperate rainforest, islands positioned on the open ocean and communities built on the frigid edges of the continent, flying weather is never guaranteed. A mild stroke, heart attack or diabetic crisis has the potential to become a tragic death when the critical timeframe for receiving care is delayed by hours—or worse, entire days.

Rural Alaska
Rural Alaska MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Telehealth has the power to prevent unnecessary deaths that stem from a lack of chronic disease care. In fact, 100 million Americans suffer from common, manageable diseases like atrial fibrillation, heart disease and diabetes. This is why Alaska has taken the lead in leveraging telehealth resources to support and treat individuals in remote locations living with chronic conditions. We've developed innovations that allow for specialists to remotely evaluate patients at community clinics, monitor patients at home and dispense prescriptions from centralized pharmacies.

As a result, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), the largest rural health care provider in our state, has been able to cut travel for specialty care by over 50 percent, saving $41 million in Medicaid spending. Likewise, 19,000 orthopedic cases have been handled remotely since 2012. In fact, the telehealth data produced by ANTHC has resulted in the adaptation of similar programs all around the world.

So, what's the catch? Why has this bipartisan cause struggled to gain acceptance in recent years?

One reason is the perceived cost of more frequent telehealth visits due to the convenience of these appointments. But the cost of additional telehealth consultations to manage a condition such as high blood pressure is dwarfed by the catastrophic cost of a medivac, hospitalization and surgery for a typical heart attack. Telehealth technology also improves the ability for health care providers to monitor and connect with patients in rural areas, preventing minor health crises from spiraling into costly acute care incidents.

Certainly, there are situations where telehealth may not be practical or appropriate, but the quick and relatively painless transition to remote health services during this pandemic has demonstrated that these situations are far rarer than critics acknowledge. And when it comes to the management of chronic conditions in rural America, the health and cost benefits of telehealth are undeniable.

It's time for Congress to catch up.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, elected in 2018, is the 12th governor of Alaska.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.