Health On the Hill

Trump Signs Order Aimed at Strengthening Telehealth and Rural Healthcare

On Monday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at empowering rural healthcare providers and expanding access to telehealth services.

Medicare has greatly expanded its coverage of telehealth services as part of its coronavirus emergency response, but that expansion is set to expire once the public health emergency is over.

The executive order calls on Congress to make that coverage permanent and increase the number of services available via telehealth to include things like emergency room visits, consultations with nurses, and speech and occupational therapy.

“One of the only good things that we’ve gotten out of this whole horrible situation is telehealth, has been incredible,” Trump said during a press briefing. He promised that his administration is “taking action to make sure telehealth is here to stay.”

The order will create an experimental system in which high-performing health care providers in rural communities would receive more predictable Medicare payments, a policy the Trump administration previously adamantly opposed.

The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services have also been charged with working together to empower rural hospitals.

This executive order is the most recent example of the administration’s newfound focus on healthcare. Last month, Trump recently signed four executive orders slashing prescription drug prices and released a report on the need for consumer protections against surprise medical bills.

Although this has signaled a new commitment to healthcare reform, it is clear that this is a pre-election bid meant to bolster the president’s record on an issue his voters care about. Many have also criticized the administration for failing to unveil a health plan of his own.

On July 17, Trump appeared on Fox News to discuss his intentions to “replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which would strip benefits from tens of millions of families and leave millions uninsured. Repealing the ACA without a comparable replacement would also seriously undercut access to essential health care services by rescinding the requirement that insurance plans cover things like maternity care, reproductive health care, preventative services such as breast cancer screenings, and mental health treatment.

Trump promised to present a “full and complete healthcare plan” of his own by last Friday, but it never arrived, and there is no evidence that a plan exists. Instead, the president announced on Monday he would release the plan by the end of August. Trump has been promising to implement a comprehensive healthcare plan to compete with the ACA since the beginning of his presidential campaign.

The expansion of telehealth services, however, has been celebrated as a way to protect vulnerable, high-risk communities during the pandemic. In April, Medicare telehealth visits skyrocketed from just a few thousand per week to more than 1 million.

Medicare Administrator Seema Verma predicted that telehealth will become increasingly normalized post-pandemic.

“In an earlier age, doctors commonly made house calls,” she said in a statement. “Given how effectively and efficiently the healthcare system has adapted to the advent of telehealth, it’s become increasingly clear that it is poised to resurrect that tradition in modern form.”

Sources: NBC News 8/3/2020; Politico 8/3/2020; PBS 8/3/2020; Washington Post 8/3/2020

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