This year has been full of unforeseen challenges. The pandemic has forced us to adjust many aspects of our daily lives as we adapt to a new normal. While technology has played a vital role in our push towards safe and effective vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, we have also come face to face with two long-standing issues: the digital divide and federal regulations that have not kept up with the pace of technological advancements.
We know the coronavirus has led to people ignoring other medical symptoms, or not seeking treatment when they previously would have, due to fear of contracting the virus. In May, a poll showed about half of Americans delayed care because of the pandemic. In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that number was still more than 40 percent. It is heartbreaking to know people are jeopardizing their long-term health, and in some cases even losing their lives, because they are afraid to go to the doctor.
The digital divide has exacerbated this issue, as far too many Americans find themselves unable to access telehealth options. South Carolina has long led on telehealth policy and innovation, hosting one of just two federally-recognized Telehealth Centers of Excellence in the nation at the Medical University of South Carolina. We know how effective telehealth can be, especially for our seniors. But there is clearly more work to be done.
This year, I have worked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to introduce a number of proposals to address ongoing broadband challenges right here at home, such as the State Fix Act. If enacted, these bills would be game-changing for the estimated 650,000 South Carolinians who currently lack access to high-speed internet. Unfortunately, even as we continue working to improve home broadband infrastructure, outdated federal laws and regulations continue to constrain patient access to telehealth services, especially for our older and more vulnerable populations.
More than one million South Carolinians are enrolled in Medicare, where extensive restrictions on geographic location, distant and originating sites, provider-type, and services covered limit many seniors’ ability to take advantage of telehealth offerings. I have worked with my colleagues on the Senate Finance Committee to develop and advance the CHRONIC Care Act, substantially expanding access to additional telehealth benefits for most seniors enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans. But Medicare Advantage only serves about a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries, and rigid rules remain in place for traditional Medicare plans. That means 75 percent of those utilizing Medicare in our state, almost 800,000 people in total, are seeing their access to telehealth hindered by outdated and unneeded red tape.
Thankfully, early in the pandemic, Congress passed the CARES Act. One of the things the CARES Act did was create new flexibilities for telehealth coverage and payment under Medicare. However, these flexibilities are temporary. Unless Congress acts to extend some of the core Medicare coverage and reimbursement expansions beyond the end of the pandemic, whenever it may come, hundreds of thousands of seniors in South Carolina will be unable to receive covered care through virtual health technology. Nationally, that number will be in the tens of millions.
For that reason, this month I wrote a letter to Congressional leadership emphasizing how important it is that we permanently expand telehealth coverage. We have a roadmap for this, outlined in the CONNECT for Health Act, which would help to protect our seniors by modernizing Medicare payment policies. I supported this legislation before the pandemic began, and will continue pushing for its enactment as vaccines begin to help us turn the tide on COVID.
Expanding telehealth access will require a multi-pronged approach that both bridges the digital divide and secures sustainable payment and coverage policies across various programs. However, enacting the CONNECT for Health Act would help us put lessons learned from the pandemic into immediate action and improve our health care system for Americans from all walks of life, particularly with regards to our seniors and those living in rural or underserved communities.
I will continue to prioritize legislation that grants South Carolinians – and all Americans – access to telehealth services. It’s not just about learning lessons from this pandemic, but ensuring we are better prepared the next time we face a public health emergency, whenever or whatever that may be.