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Silver Lining of COVID-19 Pandemic: Improving Access to Mental Health Care

by Resurgent Guest Read Profile arrow_right_alt

Throughout the government-ordered shutdowns to address the novel coronavirus, many people are concerned about the unintended health consequences, both physical and mental, from these measures. Public health experts have raised concerns about increasing drug and alcohol overdoses during the pandemic and shutdowns. There is evidence that economic downturns can increase risky behaviors like alcohol and drug consumption, and we’re in dismal economic times.

Despite these concerns, one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic is that state and federal officials have increased access to mental health care.

A recent article in the Texas Tribune highlights that access to mental health care may actually be improving over the past couple of months. Texas Governor Greg Abbott waived many restrictions on telemedicine so health care providers, and particularly those dealing with mental health issues, can more easily treat patients.

At the federal level, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has waived similar restrictions for providers serving those covered by Medicaid and Medicare.

Since these waivers at the state and federal levels are temporary, we need the Texas Legislature and the U.S. Congress, respectively, to make many of these waivers permanent so patients can more easily access health care providers.

There are a number of ways to improve this access, particularly to mental health providers.

First, Texas has strict regulations on when an out-of-state provider can render services in the state. The Texas Legislature should loosen these restrictions to make it easier for health care professionals in other states to treat Texans via telemedicine and to write prescriptions in Texas.

Second, the federal government should do the same for providers serving Medicaid and Medicare patients, as CMS limits the ability of providers to treat patients in different states.

CMS temporarily waived some of these restrictions during the pandemic. Now, Congress should make these waivers permanent. This is will not only help patients with Medicaid or Medicare receive increased access to mental health care providers, but also enable them to more easily receive other types of care.

Third, CMS requires those on Medicare to go to a physical location not in a metropolitan statistical area and they must be located in a Health Professional Shortage Areas to receive treatment via telemedicine. CMS temporarily waived this rule, but it should be eliminated permanently because it defeats the purpose of telemedicine. Telemedicine should be easily accessible in a person’s home and requiring elderly beneficiaries to go to a physical location puts an unnecessary burden on them.

While the results of the COVID-19 crisis are undeniably tragic, we can embrace the benefits telemedicine deregulation has brought, even after the pandemic is over. State and federal regulators have countless restrictions that limit the ability of the most vulnerable in our society from having the best access to healthcare professionals.

To their credit, government officials at every level have developed innovative solutions to increase access to providers during these difficult times. Let’s put all of these changes up for review with the goal of eliminating unnecessary ones permanently. If there are barriers to patients receiving health care, particularly mental health care, we should tear them down.

With the novel coronavirus expected to linger until there is a vaccine, and with some level of social distancing either voluntarily or government-imposed expected to continue for a while, we can’t forget about illnesses other than COVID-19 and need to focus on removing barriers so people can receive the best health care in these unique times and always.

Stephen Pickett, PhD is an economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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