One of the overlooked heroes during the COVID-19 pandemic has been technology.
Various cutting-edge applications and devices have permitted Americans to social distance, while simultaneously retaining some semblance of normalcy in their lives.
The internet and e-conferencing software has enabled myriad employees to work from home as the virus refuses to relent; the elderly and immunocompromised can use mobile phone apps to have food and other necessities delivered to their doorstep, helping them to remain safely within their homes; and telemedicine allows patients to avoid disease-ridden doctors’ offices, but still receive non-emergency medical attention.
We are told that the key to finally defeating the virus is obtaining herd immunity—ideally through rapid mass vaccinations. But the best methods of keeping the virus at bay and buying time for nationwide inoculation programs to take effect are to wear masks and socially distance. This is common knowledge at this point, but some of the Peach State’s laws are at odds with Georgians’ needs.
Take ocular telehealth for example: Georgia virtually forbids its use. During a pandemic, this is unwise, given that it herds people into crowded eye doctors’ offices, but even in normal times, it removes a safe, cost-effective and accessible option for healthcare.
Considering the benefits of ocular telehealth, Rep. Mark Newton (R-123) introduced HB 629, and presented a committee substitute to the bill. Unfortunately, the language isn’t posted on the House of Representatives website. Nevertheless, it “attempts to make sure the spectrum that’s available for telehealth visits is one that doesn’t exclude the practice of ophthalmology and optometry,” Rep. Newton announced during a recent Health and Human Services committee hearing. If passed, according to the sponsor, the measure would allow for prescription contact lens refills via a telemedicine eye exam by licensed eye doctors, but only if the patient previously had an in-person visit, examination and been fitted for lenses.
This seems like a commonsense approach that would bring Georgia in line with the majority of the country. In fact, Rep. Newton pointed out that Georgia is one of only three states that bans ocular telehealth, which is a grievous mistake. Permitting its use would be a boon to consumers during the smoldering pandemic, but the truth is that the benefits of ocular telemedicine go far beyond even this.
Perhaps most importantly, permitting the use of ocular telehealth will make healthcare more convenient and accessible. As it stands, reduced access to eye doctors—especially in rural corners of the state—is a real issue. While many would like to make appointments with a vision provider, geography and shortages may make it prohibitive. Similarly, many Americans simply struggle to keep vision appointments due to work travel and family constraints. However, with ocular telemedicine, these patients could make their appointments essentially anytime and anywhere so long as they have internet access.
Unfortunately, far too many are opting against eye care currently, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and cost is a primary factor. Indeed, for those without vision insurance, eye care’s price tag can be beyond one’s means. Yet ocular telehealth saves patients money by reducing the number of costly in-person consultations and repeat visits, which could put eye care within the financial reach of many more Georgians.
Best of all, Rep. Newton’s bill would maintain patient safety because it would still require comprehensive, initial in-person exams and would permit subsequent telemedicine eye exams. But as Rep. Newton repeatedly pointed out, this doesn’t replace in-person appointments. It simply gives consumers a choice to use telemedicine services. This would ultimately remove unnecessary barriers to vision needs. In fact, considering all of the benefits, it is inexplicable that Georgia hasn’t joined much of the rest of the country in allowing ocular telehealth.
Despite this, and the fact that a chorus of supportive organizations testified in support of the measure, Georgia may have to wait another year for such eye care. That’s because the committee agreed to table the bill pending further study, which is one of the most loathed phrases in the legislature. Today is Crossover Day in the legislature, and this means that bills not passed by its respective chamber may not be considered for the rest of the year. Thus, HB 629 is likely shelved for now, but the good news is that the General Assembly can take up the proposal in 2022 if it so chooses.
In the meantime, Georgians will have to continue to endure higher costs, inflexibility and reduced access to vision care—not to mention the risks of filing into crowded eye doctors’ offices during a pandemic.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden