Telehealth is Essential to Improve Access to Healthcare for Arkansans

The COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges that have created unprecedented changes to healthcare systems in Arkansas and around the nation. Amid the hardships, one benefit in particular was fully realized, especially for Arkansans: the value of telehealth. Before the pandemic, only 1% of all physician visits in the U.S. were conducted via telehealth. According to Medicare claims data, that number spiked to almost 50% in just the first month of the public health emergency. While telehealth usage has stabilized since shutdowns went into full effect, the number of virtual visits remains much higher than before COVID-19. And in Arkansas, more patients than ever before have been able to access care through this critical tool. That reality should not go away simply because we are turning the corner on this public health crisis.

Arkansas has been a very restrictive state for accessing telehealth, even though telehealth services could help address critical issues the state is facing, such as poor health outcomes and a dire shortage of healthcare professionals. Arkansans have seen the benefits telehealth can provide thanks to Governor Asa Hutchinson’s Executive Order last March, which was designed to allow wide access to telehealth during the COVID-19 public health emergency.  As a result of the Governor’s foresight, Arkansans experienced first-hand how telehealth effectively increases access to safe, efficient, quality care for all, especially underserved and remote patient populations, all while reducing the cost of care.

The benefits of telehealth could become permanently available if House Bill 1063 passes the legislature in the next few weeks. This bill has all the necessary ingredients to ensure Arkansans maintain the ability to seek care through convenient, accessible and cost-effective virtual care modalities. House Bill 1063 expands the breadth of the Arkansas Telemedicine Act and, consistent with the Governor’s Executive Order, empowers healthcare professionals to interact with patients using any telehealth technology (including audio-only and asynchronous or chat-based technologies) deemed appropriate by the healthcare professional. The proposal also mandates coverage for patients treated over the phone.

As a physician and Board Chair of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), I am very proud of our mission to promote a healthcare system where people can access safe, effective, and appropriate care while enabling clinicians to do more good for more people. To address challenges driven by rising healthcare costs, an aging population, variation in health care quality and outcomes, and an inadequate number of clinicians, the ATA advocates for the broader use of technology to reimagine healthcare and supports policies that will ensure that all people receive appropriate care where and when they need it.

Right now, Arkansas lawmakers have the potential to preserve and expand a much-needed public health resource by passing House Bill 1063. The ATA urges the state legislature to pass this bill and ensure Arkansans continue to receive care through telehealth technologies. In the context of the pandemic, Arkansas must adopt policies that will make it easier for residents to access affordable, quality care from the safety of their homes.

After more than a year of increased usage, it is increasingly clear to healthcare providers, patients, and policymakers that telehealth is not just a “COVID solution” but a critical healthcare delivery tool in perpetuity. For hospitals and healthcare providers across the country, telehealth represents between 15% to 25% of outpatient care, creating an appropriate balance of in-person and virtual care. We must make telehealth a permanent care delivery option for Arkansas by passing this legislation to modernize healthcare and resolve the health disparities that have long plagued our most vulnerable.

Telehealth services have been a vital option in healthcare for many years and are positioned to expand rapidly in the future, with the potential for broad health and economic benefits. However, increased access to appropriate telehealth services requires the support of policymakers across the country. To maintain expanded access to virtual care, Arkansas policymakers must act now to adjust regulatory frameworks and further strengthen the foundation brought about by the rapid growth of telehealth during COVID-19. The ATA stands ready to help Arkansas state legislators navigate telehealth issues in the months ahead and ensure virtual care will support patients and providers for years to come.

Dr. Joe Kvedar is Chair of the Board of the American Telemedicine Association and is a board-certified dermatologist and Professor of Dermatology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Kvedar is also Editor-in-chief of njp Digital Medicine.