SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - During the pandemic, virtual visits to health care professionals have exploded in popularity. But now they face an uncertain future in Illinois and pressure is mounting to change state law so that telehealth visits will be covered by insurance even when the pandemic ends.
Rush University Medical Center introduced telehealth in 2019, but patients didn’t sign up in droves until COVID hit. Hospital officials say they moved from an average of 67 telehealth visits per month to an average of 21,000 per month when COVID-19 kept patients home.
Doctor Meeta Shah, a Rush emergency medicine physician, says virtual visits help her focus more on a patient and allow her to connect without a face mask while they meet on a computer screen.
"We can finally show our emotions again to our patients. I think that we’ve lost that human connection behind the mask," said Dr. Shah.
Dr. Shah also says appointments over video often are easier for patients to attend.
"They have a lunch break at noon or they have a break during work and they can hop on to their screens and see their doctors," she said.
Dr. Shah points out it got much easier for patients once they were able to use their insurance for telehealth.
The game changer was an executive order that Governor J.B. Pritzker signed in March of 2020. It basically forces insurance companies to pay for telehealth visits, like in-person visits.
But what happens to telehealth when the pandemic ends? Representative Deb Conroy from the 46th district in Illinois has a plan.
The Villa Park Democrat sponsored legislation to make telehealth a permanent option.
"This legislation will allow all of us to access it and for insurance to pay for it," she said.
Representative Conroy says one big struggle is that insurers are willing to reimburse mental health visits the same whether virtual or in person, but not visits for physical health.
"I’ve spent years fighting for mental health parity payment and now all of a sudden we are fighting for physical health parity payment and it’s like, come on, our bodies don’t function without our brains. We’ve got to bring this all together," Conroy said.
The chief strategist officer at Rush University System for Health, Tatyana Popkova, says telehealth is not just key to the pandemic, but to the future.
"We expect by 2025, 75% of our consumers or patients at Rush will be millennials. Their expectations of how they receive care is via digital, via telehealth," Popkova said.
For Dr. Shah, she can’t imagine stopping virtual visits. She says it’s not just COVID keeping people away from care, but lack of time, transportation and proximity to a place like Rush or any other hospital.
"What happens when they don’t have any access? They can’t physically come in to us? Well, then they stay home and get sicker," she said.
The legislation to make insurers cover telehealth has passed the Illinois House and is being negotiated on the Senate side. There is a time crunch because the governor's executive order on telehealth will expire when the state is set to reopen June 11.