Medicare/Medicaid Expands Telemedicine to Fight COVID-19

HHS is making healthcare more accessible during the COVID-19 outbreak. Could this step help expand health insurance coverage permanently?

President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, listens as Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaks to members of the press Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in the James S. brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), a division under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services headed by HHS Secretary Alex Azar, has taken a number of important steps in the battle against coronavirus over the last week.

To fight the U.S. outbreak of COVID-10, government agencies- organized under the auspices of the White House Coronavirus Task Force- have worked together to help sick Americans get the care they need.

One of the many measures taken, an expansion of telemedicine programs seems like a modest one. But technology designed for the express purpose of bringing a limited number of doctors in contact with more of the never-ending supply of patients is very important.

On March 26, CMS issued an electronic Telehealth and telemedicine toolkit that health care facilities and long-term care homes can use to more effectively respond to the COVID-19 outbreak that has swept the nation in the past weeks.

Since limiting the spread of COVID-19 is of such vital importance at this time, telemedicine and Telehealth services are of particular consequence. It is difficult to tell sick and scared people not to come to the hospital; the hospital is also a place full of sick people, who might infect others.

Taking advantage of advancements in technology, CMS has given health care providers around the country and their patients expanded access to services and support during this public health crisis without the need for increased contact. Or increased personnel.

Most of the information included in the kits is directed towards medical providers who are very likely to establish a permanent telemedicine program- once the COVID-19 health crisis is over.

Once the system is in place, it will be easier and more profitable for medical professionals to continue to use it than to stop using it.

In the interim, CMS has released helpful guidelines and recommendations for choosing telemedicine vendors, equipment and software. Once clinics initiate the telemedicine program, medical staff members can monitor patients remotely, caring for sick patients using virtual services and tools developed in response to COVID-19.

These tools to expand the patient-capacity of doctors and health care professionals are essential in any conversation about universal healthcare.

Proponents of universal healthcare always draw a blank when they get to a critical sticking point in their argument that healthcare should be an unalienable human right.

Where will the U.S. find all the new doctors, nurses, administrators and other healthcare professionals a universal healthcare system would require?

Legal immigration is a good argument, of course. And there certainly are any number of highly intelligent, qualified young students of medicine who come to the U.S. everyday from all around the world.

But they come to the U.S., versus staying in their home countries for education and jobs, because medical jobs in the U.S. can be very lucrative. Financial security is attractive to intelligent students who want to make sure that the extra 10+ years they will have to spend in medical school and internship programs will be worth everything they will have to sacrifice in the process.

A government hospital could probably never pay a surgeon as much as a private hospital could.

Faced with the prospect of being a poorly paid bureaucrat in a government hospital, students with the fortitude, time, money and intelligence required to be doctors might just as easily choose another career. One with less education required, more room for career advancement.

This is the critical flaw in the argument that universal health care should be a human right:

You can’t force people to be doctors.

Quality health care certainly improves a person’s chances of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But so does food; so does shelter.

And like doctors, we can’t force people to produce food just because we can’t live without it. We can’t force anyone to build houses, either.

Not in a Democracy, anyway.

Given that, and legislative impossibility, universal health care is, let’s say for the sake of argument, unlikely to be a reality any time soon.

Yet millions of Americans remain without access to affordable health care, a fact that has been thrown into sharp focus by the number of people potentially impacted by COVID-19 who don’t have health insurance.

The expanded availability of telemedicine is one such way the current infrastructure of the medical industry could be easily adapted to make use of growing trends in technology to close a gap in care.

COVID-19, like the outbreak of WWII, has led legislators and lawmakers to the conclusion that a healthy population makes for a stronger nation when danger threatens.

During WWII, when some countries tried to institute a draft, they found a shocking number of people in the poorer classes were simply too ill, too uneducated, too broken-down to fight.

The living conditions of some of the working poor in Europe before that time are truly incomprehensible.

Finding the population unfit to draft, it occurred to many authorities that for a country to treat its citizens that way left that nation far more vulnerable in a crisis.

And so has COVID-19 proved.

At a time when the U.S. needs its working class so desperately, the fact that many of the people who do the jobs we depend on most can’t afford health care, even as they risk infection themselves in continuing to work, is truly heartbreaking.

Health care that is accessible for everyone is the true goal of a universal healthcare system. And making widespread access to care easier and more accessible is one of keystones of making the U.S. healthcare system work for everyone; both during COVID-19 and in the long term.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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