This article originally appeared in The Detroit News March 9.
Nearly 40% of adults in Michigan experience symptoms of depression or anxiety, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Sadly, many are unable to receive the care they need, in large part due to a lack of mental health care providers in the state. And the problem of provider shortages is not confined to mental health care. Michigan has 269 primary care health professional shortage areas — a federal designation for regions with too few providers.
But there is a proven way to increase access immediately, simply by allowing residents to seek care remotely from providers in other states, a practice known as telehealth.
Problems such as provider shortages will not be solved overnight, and telehealth is not a silver bullet, but allowing patients to get virtual treatment across state lines can increase access to quality providers almost immediately.
Consider the state of Florida, which has allowed telehealth across state lines since 2019. Eighty percent of the out-of-state providers offering their services to Florida residents are mental health providers and medical doctors — two areas of great need in Michigan.
Millions of Michiganians living in areas without an adequate supply of healthcare providers desperately need an influx of providers. For these patients, getting treatment is not an easy feat, and travel can be costly, especially if they are seeking care across state lines. But thanks to telehealth, your medical destiny does not have to be tied to your geography.
Coming out of COVID, virtual appointments with primary care providers, messaging with behavioral health providers, and even remote monitoring have become as commonplace as grocery delivery services for millions of Americans. And for many in underserved areas, telehealth services have been the only lifeline to care or a second opinion by an expert for a chronic condition. Telehealth is a market equalizer — or it could be if its capabilities are fully embraced. While patients living in Indiana can receive treatment from providers across a state line, right now, Michigan patients cannot.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer opened the doors for Michigan patients to see providers outside of the state through telehealth services. But that door has since been slammed closed, and patients have lost access to care. The playing field has been tilted, yet again, so that geography and income may determine patients’ health access.
A new report from the Pioneer Institute, Cicero Institute and Reason Foundation, which I co-authored, finds that many emergency orders that granted increased telehealth flexibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic have since expired, leaving patients with decreased access to care — Michigan being no exception. But the good news is that lawmakers can act now to remove these barriers permanently and allow Michigan patients to receive treatment from providers across state lines, pandemic or no pandemic.
Even without ongoing provider shortages, this reform makes sense. Physicians licensed across the border don’t suddenly lose their skills when they connect to a patient with a 734 area code.
And residents should have access to the provider of their choice. This reform is gaining momentum, and other states are beginning to clear a pathway for patients to see out-of-state providers. New states are realizing the full benefits of telehealth across state lines, such as Vermont and New Hampshire, which both added a permanent process for some out-of-state providers to treat patients through telehealth services in 2022.
Lawmakers in Lansing should act now in a bipartisan manner to give Michiganians increased access to care by allowing them to see out-of-state providers through the use of telehealth services. It may not be a silver bullet to fix all of the healthcare industry’s problems, but it’s certainly a start for patients.
Josh Archambault is a health policy adviser with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland, Mich.
Permission to reprint this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author (or authors) and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are properly cited.
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