Gov. Murphy, let’s keep telehealth. It’s 1 good thing that came out of the pandemic. | Opinion
By Geoffrey Boyce and Ann Mond Johnson
There is not much to be said positively about COVID-19′s impact on our healthcare system. There is one silver lining, though, that has the potential to be the pandemic’s most valuable legacy for New Jersey and our country — the rise and adoption of telehealth.
Now, Gov. Phil Murphy has the opportunity to solidify telehealth’s legacy by signing a bill (S2559) that has been sitting on his desk for over three weeks, after having sailed unopposed through both the Assembly and Senate. How many things pass with unanimous bipartisan support these days? It’s clear New Jerseyan patients and providers do not want to abruptly lose access to the telehealth services they have relied on during the pandemic.
Telehealth is not new, however, over the last year and a half we’ve learned not only that it could be a lifeline to so many during the pandemic, but that it could help close some of the equity gaps in our healthcare system. We’ve seen firsthand how telehealth creates more pathways for New Jerseyans to access care when and where they need it — including those areas with shortages of specialists or mental health professionals, those without access to reliable transportation or childcare, those without time to schedule an in-person visit, those on Medicaid or who are uninsured, and those managing stigmatized or multiple chronic conditions.
And we’ve also seen the potential for telehealth to connect patients with the most appropriate path for care for their individual needs, whether triaging them to in-person care settings or handling their needs entirely. For example, the Henry J. Austin Health Center (HJAHC) in Trenton — providing care to the underserved, uninsured and medically vulnerable — quickly converted to offering telehealth visits during the pandemic, which has allowed them to serve more patients more efficiently. Lee Ruszczyk, senior director of Behavioral Health at HJAHC in Trenton recently emphasized the absolute necessity of continuing to support telehealth: “It would be unjust and unfair to take away the flexibility and access to care that telehealth affords once the pandemic is over. . . [Our patients] have enough inequities and barriers to deal with, access to healthcare should not be one of them.”
A New Jersey working mother echoed these sentiments and believes telehealth saved her adolescent son’s life following a suicide attempt: “Access to something like telepsychiatry can make all the difference in the world. It helps you as a parent feel that you have a little bit more control, that there are more options out there. It can be very difficult to find the mental health professional that you need, let alone find them in the scariest moments.”
The bill Governor Murphy holds is quite simple. It makes permanent many of the temporary policies put in place that enabled thousands of visits between patients and their doctors. This commonsense legislation brings New Jersey’s telehealth framework into the 21st century by enabling providers to choose from a broader range of technologies to conduct telehealth visits and to continue to treat patients in their homes. This flexibility is also important to encourage the continued innovation and adoption of new healthcare technology that connects doctors and patients — from remote patient monitoring to at-home diagnostic testing.
Critically, the bill also ensures that doctors, psychologists, other healthcare providers, clinics and hospitals offering telehealth continue to be paid fairly. Providers, particularly small and independent practices in underserved communities, need to know they’ll be compensated for the care delivered through telehealth before making it available to their patients and investing in the technology to do so. A recent survey found that nearly 75% of providers said that low or no reimbursement would make it a challenge to keep offering patients telehealth. For that reason, red and blue states across the country — from Texas to Massachusetts to Maryland to California — have taken action to protect patients’ access and passed laws ensuring telehealth services are reimbursed fairly and not subject to heightened requirements.
Now is the time for Governor Murphy to add New Jersey to this list and take the sensible step that so many other states have in giving patients and their doctors the incredibly valuable tool of telehealth — for good. New Jersey cannot afford to squander this opportunity and take a step backward. Patients overwhelmingly want to use telehealth, providers appreciate its ability to help them better deliver care and manage patients’ health, and it’s a lifeline for so many of the patients too often left behind by our healthcare system.
Geoffrey Boyce is the CEO of Array Behavioral Care, which is based in Mt. Laurel and is the largest telepsychiatry service provider in the country.
Ann Mond Johnson is the CEO of the American Telemedicine Association.