In the wake of COVID-19, the way that healthcare providers and patients interact is evolving at a rapid pace. From the adoption of electronic medical records to the embrace of telehealth services, medical providers have taken great strides to increase access to care, especially in rural communities that lack quality care options. The evolution and availability of telehealth have drastically improved Texans’ quality of life, thanks to the policies previously passed by the Texas legislature allowing for consumer choice and empowering healthcare providers to serve more people in their communities.
But as inevitably happens in the Texas Capitol, one piece of bad legislation is putting all the state’s advances in telehealth at risk. Senate Bill 2064 places unnecessary and overburdensome restrictions on the use of telehealth technologies by preventing healthcare providers, hospitals, and telehealth platforms from supporting and providing care to patients who need their services the most. The legislation hinders access to care and targets providers who offer that care through telehealth and telemedicine. It takes providers away from care for patients and makes them responsible for decisions made by hospitals and telehealth platforms they use to deliver care. This bill effectively rolls back the progress we have made in expanding access to care in recent years, disproportionately affecting already vulnerable communities lacking nearby and specialized care options.
Telehealth provides an essential tool for expanding access to quality health services. Not only did telehealth serve as the main conduit for communication between physicians and patients at the height of the pandemic, but it is also being used to address the lingering effects of COVID-19 on mental health. One of the main benefits of telehealth is its ability to provide an outlet for patients to discuss conditions comfortably and discreetly. The surge in telehealth usage post-pandemic has started us down the path to a world of more convenient and accessible care. Putting roadblocks in the way will only lead to adverse health outcomes like delayed diagnosis and treatment.
SB 2064 will harm rural, low-income, and medically underserved communities. For rural patients with limited access to specialty care, a telehealth consultation is often a critical first step in evaluating appropriate next steps and developing a treatment plan. This legislation would force healthcare providers using telehealth to make the gut-wrenching choice of either abandoning their patients or putting their licenses at risk by continuing to care for their patients. Fundamentally, providers should be able to use their clinical judgment in choosing the best way to treat patients – they shouldn’t have their licenses and livelihoods placed at risk for decisions they did not make.
With only five counties in the state providing a sufficient number of primary care physicians to treat their residents, Texas is facing a stark shortage in clinical care access. Not to mention, with the medical community still recovering from the stress of working through the pandemic, this bill seeks to punish healthcare professionals for data-sharing decisions made by the entities they work for — into which doctors have no insight or input. It will understandably have a chilling effect on the willingness and ability of healthcare providers to utilize telehealth in caring for their patients.
Those in support of the legislation claim to do so under the guise of protecting patient health information. We all agree that protecting individual health data is a critical component of providing Texans with the high-quality care they need. That’s why the sale of protected health information has already been prohibited under Texas law for more than a decade.
Texas is facing a statewide health crisis ranking dead last in clinical care accessibility. Our legislators should not roll back access to the high-quality care that Texans now receive through telehealth and telemedicine. SB 2064 is detrimental to the Texas healthcare system and will limit access, quality, and affordability of healthcare delivery.
Brian Williams, M.D., is a Texas Medical Board-licensed physician in Austin, Texas.