U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján
U.S. SENATE News:
WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) Chairs the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband.
Sen. Luján recently convened a hearing titled “State of Telehealth: Removing Barriers to Access and Improving Patient Outcomes” to examine the importance of access to telehealth services, how utilization of telehealth services changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, how access to broadband impacted the public health response, and how to structure future deployment and policy to address the needs of underserved communities.
“Telehealth has made a real difference in the lives of Americans for decades. Being able to see a doctor without having to drive hours to the nearest city saves New Mexicans time and resources – and it saves lives,” Luján said. “But too many are cut off from telehealth services due to the digital divide. Congress must address this issue, and the first step is getting the bipartisan infrastructure legislation signed into law to invest in broadband access and adoption.”
Luján’s panel of experts included Sterling N. Ransone, Jr., MD, FAAFP, President, American Academy of Family Physician; Sanjeev Arora, MD, MACP, FACG, Director and Founder, Project ECHO; Distinguished Professor of Medicine, University of New Mexico; Deanna Larson, President, Avel eCARE; and Brendan Carr, Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission.
Excerpt from Sen. Luján’s opening remarks as prepared for delivery:
Over the past year and a half the COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much about how we live our lives. To stay safe, we changed how we work, how we see friends, and how we connect with family. But nothing changed so fundamentally as our relationship with health care.
Staying safe became a daily question. At times, hospitals and emergency rooms were full, leaving patients with nowhere to go. Doctors needed new ways to care for their patients that wouldn’t further expose them to a virus that could threaten their health and wellbeing. To solve this problem, many doctors and patients turned to telehealth.
At the start of the pandemic from February to May of 2020, the US Department of Veterans Affairs reported weekly appointments on their telehealth application surged from 10,000 to 120,000 a week.
Nationwide, weekly telemedicine visits increased over 2,300 percent. The number of telemedicine appointments are now twenty three times higher than they were before the pandemic. Nearly 1 in 3 healthcare visits now use telehealth services.
But not only did usage go up, the landscape of American healthcare changed. According to data by the Department of Health and Human Services before the pandemic, over half of all Community Health Centers were not equipped to provide telemedicine services. Today, that number is under five percent.
Physicians have found ways to incorporate telehealth, including audio-only options, into their practice, and patients have seen benefits from the convenience and accessibility these services have offered.
These services kept Americans safe. When ICU beds ran low in Doña Ana County, local public and private partners rapidly assembled a remote telehealth monitoring program. This allowed many patients to recover in their own homes while still under the supervision of trained medical staff. The program freed up beds and saved lives.
We all see the urgency here. Congress appropriated $450 million to the COVID-19 Telehealth Program in the CARES Act and the Consolidated Appropriations Act to increase telehealth access.
Thanks to Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s leadership, the Federal Communication Commission continues to support essential connections for telehealth. The Commission helps fund secure, confidential remote medical consultations, especially for those living in rural areas. Over the past year, New Mexico received over a million dollars to help connect patients.
This funding will help improve healthcare in the Presbyterian Medical Services in Santa Fe and Albuquerque and the First Choice Community Healthcare South Valley Family Health Commons.
These programs are essential, but our work is just beginning. The digital divide is standing in our way of connecting all Americans to this vital service. According to the FCC, 14.5 million Americans lack even a low-speed broadband connection.
These communities are effectively cut off from many of the benefits of telehealth. Native American and Hispanic communities are less likely to have access to high-speed broadband and are less likely to take advantage of telehealth services. Rural areas continue to face higher costs for broadband infrastructure.
We must connect every American to high-quality, affordable, resilient broadband. Without it, the current patterns of inequality will continue to grow. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included over $65 billion to increase broadband access and adoption. We urgently need to deliver this relief to communities across the country. Families must be able to talk to their doctor without worrying about hitting a data cap. Critical remote monitoring systems must remain online during network outages, bad weather, and natural disasters.