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Congress Studies Future of Telehealth after COVID-19 Pandemic

April 29, 2021

During a pair of Congressional hearings Wednesday, federal lawmakers expressed concerns about the pandemic’s toll on mental health and explored the role of telehealth to address the nation’s growing behavioral health crisis.

“We have to address the unseen scars of trauma, depression, addiction, and other mental issues, and the reality is that healing those scars will not be quick or easy,” said Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), chair of the U.S. Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP).

Throughout the pandemic, telehealth has provided a key tool to reach patients, but the work to address behavioral health is just beginning, said Dr. Tami D. Benton, psychiatrist-in-chief and executive director and chair of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“We have opportunities to be prepared,” Dr. Benton said. “If we plan together, if we implement the solutions recommended, we’ll be able to prevent severe illness and to protect the mental health of young people in our nation.”

During the HELP hearing, clinical panelists identified several behavioral health priorities:

  • Telehealth reduces barriers: Telehealth will not replace in-person care, but it offers another important tool to improve access. Allowing audio only virtual visits has improved access and reduced the stigma surrounding behavioral health care
  • Bolstering the public health workforce:  Federal loan forgiveness programs can help support the public health workforce
  • Collaborative care:  The pandemic has highlighted opportunities for community groups, schools, providers, and specialists to collaborate. Trauma-informed training can help guide patients to the appropriate level of care
  • Medication-assisted treatment:  Regulatory restrictions prevent providers from offering medication-assisted treatment for patients with substance use disorder
  • Addressing inequities:  Reaching underserved communities requires dedicated outreach and culturally competent approaches. Investing in patient and peer navigators and increasing diversity among the caregiving workforce is essential, Dr. Benton noted

Dr. Benton also testified about supporting the mental and behavioral health of the nation’s health care workforce and the need to remove barriers that prevent physicians and staff from accessing care. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified these concerns, she noted.

Also on Wednesday, a subcommittee of the U.S. Ways and Means Committee discussed the next steps for telehealth. A panel of advocates, clinicians, and analysts asked lawmakers to build off the evolution of telehealth during the pandemic and to prioritize high-value health care.

The panelists said telehealth should improve access without incentivizing visits and volume.

The American Hospital Association submitted a statement to the subcommittee about telehealth’s benefits, including increased access to specialists, avoided hospitalizations, and improved outcomes.

HAP joins the effort to increase access to behavioral health care and to retain the waivers and flexibilities that have improved access to telehealth during the pandemic.

For more information, contact Laura Stevens Kent, HAP’s senior vice president, strategic integration, or Kate Slatt, HAP’s vice president, innovative payment and care delivery.




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