Comment: Legislation could threaten access to telehealth

A bill to protect consumers’ health data could inadvertently undermine teleheath services.

By: Jeremy Harrison-Smith / For The Herald

My passion for fighting on behalf of patients’ rights has taken me from the halls of our state capitol in Olympia to helping diverse communities in Skagit County.

As the former executive director of the Scleroderma Foundation Northwest Chapter in Washington, I’ve seen how technology continues to evolve to help patients, provide more equitable access to care, and improve outcomes. But that could become more difficult if the Washington state Legislature passes House Bill 1155, legislation that could block technological innovation, cut access to care, and lock the door to telehealth for folks across the state. The bill has passed the House and is now under consideration in the Senate.

The recent rise of telehealth has opened doors for patients from more communities to receive world-class care. I saw it firsthand working with patients suffering from scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that causes skin inflammation and elsewhere in the body. Patients who used telehealth have more access to specialists (even being able to use doctors from out of state), as well as increased comfort and convenience for those who have mobility or pain issues. It also helps patients who may feel embarrassed to be seen often in person for their chronic condition and gives them more confidence in their appointments via telehealth. It saves money for patients who don’t have to make the trip to a clinic, allows for more frequent visits, and enables family members to be present to hear first-hand from the doctor.

Right now, from Colfax to Carnation, Washingtonians can access telemedicine as long as they have an internet connection. A rural farmer grieving a deceased relative can go online, fill out a form, and be connected with a therapist. A mother in the suburbs can make an online appointment and have their child evaluated by a specialist via video conference without leaving home. These efficiencies and conveniences safely help patients receive care, save time, and drive down costs.

If passed, HB 1155 would have unintended consequences that could undermine telehealth as we know it and make it more difficult to reach patients where they are. That rural farmer making an online therapy appointment could have to jump through burdensome hoops just to seek care. That mother could be totally unaware there are affordable and convenient telemedicine services that don’t require her to take off work for her child to be seen. Receiving quality care in this country is already hard enough. Additional red tape could make patients close their computer, hang up their phone, or exit the mobile app and forgo necessary care altogether.

The pandemic underscored a core truth that I’ve seen repeatedly throughout my career in health care: We need to remove roadblocks to care, not put them up. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 4 Washingtonians had a telemedicine appointment over video or phone in the previous month. This underscores how important easy access to telehealth is for the health of our community. We cannot afford to go backward and reduce access to care. Let’s not forget that the alternative to telehealth is not always in-person care; it’s often no care at all. The first step to ensuring that people can access care is the knowledge that such care exists. HB 1155 will significantly limit the ability of health care providers and groups to reach potential patients who may not know that such an option is available.

The goals of HB 1155 are commendable. Consumers should have the right to access and delete the data companies keep. And companies should be responsible stewards of that data and protect consumer privacy. But these efforts cannot come at the expense of access to care for you and your family.

In health care, precision is of the utmost importance. The difference between an inch and a centimeter can be the difference between life and death. HB 1155 is using a cleaver where a scalpel is appropriate, and Washingtonians’ access to quality care could end up on the chopping block.

Jeremy Harrison-Smith is the former executive director of the Northwest Chapter of the National Scleroderma Foundation and is a health care advocate in Washington state.

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