Vermont lawmakers consider the long-term role of telehealth appointments

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MONTPELIER – If you’ve had a doctor’s appointment in the last year, there’s a good chance it happened over the phone or through a video conference due to the pandemic.

State lawmakers are now pondering what telehealth appointments may look like in a post-pandemic Vermont, hearing testimony from healthcare workers and advocates about the benefits and limitations of remote visits with a physician.

Several speakers said that despite telehealth visits being more convenient than traveling to the doctor’s office, Vermont’s spotty cell phone service and limited broadband access make it difficult for many to rely on remote appointments.

Linda Li, a social worker in Burlington, said it’s been difficult to connect with patients during audio-only telehealth visits.

“I have a mom who would go to the library, right in front of the library to get internet because she couldn’t get it,” Li said.

Last year, the Vermont Statewide Telehealth Workgroup was created to develop long-term recommendations, chief among them being the need to address the ‘digital health divide.’

The workgroup also wants to ensure access to telehealth tools that are secure and accessible for people with disabilities.

During the pandemic, some older Vermonters have had trouble with remote appointments. Mayumi Cornell, a patient representative, had spent the past few weeks caring for an elderly man in her neighborhood. He passed away on Sunday.

“He had a really hard time because he’s older, he has a phone and he had phone service but he couldn’t read the screen because it’s too small,” Cornell said. “He doesn’t have a computer. I think there’s some older people who are getting left out in the shuffle.”

Michael Fisher, chief healthcare advocate for Vermont Legal Aid, said patients have been concerned by large bills from telehealth appointments. He noted that many of them felt they were uninformed about the cost.

He said that if telehealth is going to be a part of the state’s future, the needs to be more emphasis on ensuring that healthcare providers are receiving the proper training.

I’ve heard it mentioned that there are good provider trainings going on, I want you to know that I’ve also heard many of those trainings have been focused on the billing aspects, not the quality aspects,” Fisher said.

The workgroup is focused primarily on audio-only telehealth services. Testimony was heard in the House Committee on Healthcare on Wednesday. Conversations are scheduled to continue at the committee’s Friday session.

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