Tester Touts Benefits of Telehealth for Montana In Committee Hearing

Senator, experts discussed Montana benefits of telehealth for Montanans, temporary waivers for providers from bipartisan COVID relief bill

U.S. Senator Jon Tester last week touted the effectiveness of telehealth services during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband hearing through an exchange with American Academy of Family Physicians President Dr. Sterling Ransone.

“Telehealth is really important. I live in Montana – weather, distance, those all make telehealth a winner – and I’ve heard it from patients that they believe it’s a winner,” said Tester. “I’m going to start with you Dr. Ransone: from an audio standpoint, I don’t know if you do any audio telehealth, but if you do, could you talk to me about its effectiveness? Because I do know that video telehealth is very effective.”

“Sir, the video is very effective, and being able to see a patient, and being able to have them hold their broken finger up, or whatever it might be in front of a camera – it’s quite beneficial for me for making a diagnosis, and developing a treatment plan,” responded Dr. Ransone. “Audio only is quite effective. The most effective tool is the one that we can use, right? So if my patient can’t use video, it’s no good to me in their care. So the most effective thing is what they can use – and audio only is incredibly effective – especially for my older patients. I can ask a lot of questions, and a lot of times, I can decide, do I actually need to bring this patient down to see me, and an audio consultation can give me the needed data in order to do that.”

Telehealth provides essential services for rural Montanans who often have to drive long distances to access medical care. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted significant adoption of telehealth services and was supported through flexibility waivers and investments initially from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Tester continued: “We put in a bunch of waivers because of the pandemic on telehealth. Do you think that those waivers should be made permanent? Or should we just extend them? What’s your view on the waivers, and have they been effective?”

“I think the waivers have been effective, and I would be supportive of making them permanent. I think we’ve entered a brave new world of virtual communication, and this is the best way for me to help take care of my patients, in their medical home,” responded Ransone.

In April, 2020 Tester urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to quickly approve $200 million for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program as appropriated by the Tester-supported CARES Act. Three programs in Montana have received funding to expand telehealth capabilities from the second round of the FCC COVID-19 Telehealth Program, including:

  • $251,609 for St. Luke Community Healthcare in Ronan, Montana
  • $679,441 for University of Montana College of Health in Missoula, Montana
  • $930,000 for the Bighorn Valley Health Center, Inc. in Hardin, Montana

Tester has since introduced his Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2021 to permanently increase telehealth funding across Montana and the rest of rural America. He is also an original co-sponsor of the Rural and Frontier Telehealth Expansion Act, which would allow states with limited broadband to pay for audio-only telehealth determined by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Tester also called for audio-only telehealth reimbursements to level the playing field for seniors and others without reliable broadband access during the coronavirus outbreak, and successfully secured $2.15 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs to bolster its telehealth capabilities through increased telework and call center capabilities in the CARES Act.