President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services signaled his support for telehealth during a Senate confirmation hearing this week.
Xavier Becerra, currently attorney general of California, highlighted the effects of inequity on the health of vulnerable communities and noted the role digital health can play in addressing that inequity.
“We know we need the data,” said Becerra during the Tuesday hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “We know we have work to do to fill those gaps.”
WHY IT MATTERS
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., drew attention to several provisions currently in place that have expanded access to telehealth during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Those, I hope, will garner your support,” he said. “I think what we’ve learned is they’re not just necessary during COVID; they are necessary into the future after the days of COVID are behind us.”
“I wholeheartedly believe we’re going to be doing expansion of telehealth,” replied Becerra. “COVID has taught us so much. It’s also the issue of broadband – making sure communities have access to broadband.”
“But if we don’t learn from COVID how telehealth can help save lives, then we’re in trouble,” said Becerra.
HELP Committee Chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, pointed to the legacy of structural racism in access to healthcare – particularly when it comes to COVID-19.
“We’ve got to make progress,” she said. “We need to address discrimination within our healthcare system … and we have to make sure that all people, including families of color and people with low incomes, have access to high quality of care.”
“Can you comment on how you will incorporate health equity across your work as secretary?” Murray continued.
“We will have a team at HHS that lives and breathes the desire to have health equity,” replied Becerra.
Becerra noted in response to a question from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that disparities in healthcare access are not limited to rural areas alone.
“Dealing with broadband, making sure there is access – telehealth has become important,” said Becerra.
“The most important thing I can tell you is that while I represented one of the most densely populated areas of the country, we had some of the greatest disparities,” he said. “We did not have to travel 1,500 miles to find the disparities. We can travel 15 miles from East Los Angeles to Beverly Hills.”
THE LARGER TREND
Although the expansion of telehealth beyond the pandemic has enjoyed bipartisan support, that support has not yet translated into permanent, wide-ranging policy.
This January, a group of U.S. representatives reintroduced a House bill that would safeguard some provisions, including eliminating geographic and originating site restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare. That bill is currently in committee.
In lieu of federal action, many states have taken up the mantle, with legislatures introducing hundreds of bills addressing virtual care. The majority would expand access to telemedicine, but a few – such as one in New Hampshire – would roll back coverage.
ON THE RECORD
“I have worked a long time on these issues, and others who believe we should not have the gaps in our healthcare system,” said Becerra. “What I can tell you is that if we collect better data, that helps us understand where the shortages are, who we are missing. We will also be able to provide better treatment.”