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Opinion Pieces

Chronic Kidney Patients Deserve Access to Safe Telehealth Care

Slowly but surely our nation is moving closer to living in a new normal, with COVID-19 case numbers dropping, cases less severe due to vaccinations and new therapies, and restrictions easing.  Americans are getting back to normal, albeit a “new normal.”

The COVID-19 public health emergency forced our health care system to modernize and adapt to a new environment. As we move out of the public health emergency, we should take lessons learned and apply them across the health care delivery system.

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) affects an estimated 37 million Americans— and each year, more than 130,000 Americans are diagnosed with kidney failure, or End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD), an irreversible disease that proves fatal without dialysis or a kidney transplant. Unfortunately, these patients were some of the hardest hit by the pandemic. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a staggering 61 percent of Medicare beneficiaries hospitalized with COVID-19 had already been diagnosed with CKD. And of the chronic conditions among fee-for-service COVID-19 hospitalizations, CKD was the third-highest at 58 percent. These populations benefited from the widespread adoption of telehealth services.

As a physician myself, I know first-hand how important flexibility and communication with patients is when making health care decisions. I would sometimes open my practice early or stay late so patients traveling for dialysis could still see me. The ability to provide that flexibility ultimately means better access to care, and thanks to the health care delivery modernizations that have come from the pandemic, many have discovered the advantages of increased flexibility provided by telehealth that allows patients to receive care from the comfort of their own homes.

That’s why I, along with Reps. Dan Kildee (D-MI), John Joyce and Lisa Blunt Rochester and Senators Mark Warner and John Barrasso, have introduced The Kidney Health Connect Act (S. 4307/H.R. 7878) which would improve access to kidney care by expanding telehealth for individuals living with CKD and ESRD. Further, if passed, this legislation would allow dialysis centers to serve as originating sites for Medicare telehealth services and remove geographic restrictions, giving patients the power to connect with their preferred provider. The bill would also prohibit the 20 percent facility fee that causes beneficiaries using dialysis centers for telehealth to incur high costs.

ESRD patients who receive in-clinic dialysis treatment spend several hours at a time there. It makes perfect sense for patients to use this time to connect with their trusted health care providers.

Every individual living with kidney disease deserves the right to have affordable and accessible health care, which is why I urge all of my colleagues in Congress to join us and put us one step closer to having permanent telehealth protections for the nation’s most vulnerable individuals.

*This piece originally ran in Inside Health Policy.