Muriel Bowser for mayor

By Peter Rosenstein - March 29, 2022 12:00 am

The LGBTQ+ community has come to rely more and more on remote general and specialized healthcare as the pandemic continues to limit access to in-person services. This lifeline is in danger of going away unless Congress acts, delivering a serious blow to the diverse community of people who struggle to access care in-person in their communities. 

Telehealth allows doctors and other providers to provide care without an in-person visit. More specifically, telehealth refers to the health care services accessible through telecommunications services, including via audio and video (either real time or asynchronous). These services are best delivered via high-speed broadband services. Medical care appointments, consultations, prescriptions, follow-up visits, and more can be done safely and virtually. 

Telehealth is a modern necessity made even more relevant due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and demand for these resources is growing. The LGBTQ+ community in particular is experiencing a significant need for improved telehealth provisions and access. Recent relaxations of telehealth regulations have expanded the reach of telehealth and positively impacted marginalized communities including the LGBTQ+ community, especially in rural and remote areas. Effective and reliable broadband access is instrumental for telehealth services and as telehealth expands, advancements to universal broadband access will be critical to reach these communities.

Telehealth and the LGBTQ+ community

More than 18 million Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, or intersex (LGBTQ+), and more younger Americans than ever before are identifying as LGBTQ+. The health concerns of these individuals deserve utmost respect and care, demonstrable through high-quality health care both in person and online. Telehealth plays an important role in connecting the LGBTQ+ community with competent and affirming health care providers and services. The LGBTQ+ community has always been more heavily reliant on internet connectivity, and healthcare is no different, with 81% of LGBTQ+ youth reportedly using the internet to search for health information.

LGBTQ+ communities face many of the same healthcare concerts as non-LGBTQ+ communities, though there are differences in rates of some chronic conditions including cancer, diabetes, obesity, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and tobacco-related health conditions. LGBTQ+ individuals have higher rates of mental and physical disability, and the impact of loneliness on health quality is experienced at higher rates by LGBTQ+ individuals in both urban and rural settings. Routine healthcare for these conditions improves quality of life, but LGBTQ+ individuals often report high cost as a deterrent from going to the doctor. Telehealth provides an affordable avenue to routine health care.

Many individuals in the LGBTQ+ community report a history of medical trauma as a barrier to receiving healthcare. Gender-affirming health care is one major motivator for telehealth access in the LGBTQ+ community. Nearly one-fifth of transgender individuals have been refused healthcare due to their gender identity. Online servers such as Folx Health, Plume, and QueerDoc provide gender-affirming care including hormone therapy, mental health, and documents for gender marker change. Telehealth allows users to bypass the barrier of proximity to medical care and to access providers who are informed on medical concerns and considerations that uniquely impact the LGBTQ+ community. 

Regulations that previously restricted the delivery of telehealth have been eased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, rules previously limited telehealth to rural areas received in a clinical setting. The new rules allow urban and suburban patients to access telehealth from their home or other convenient setting. This makes sense as many urban areas lack convenient access to physicians and other providers. Individuals across America have benefitted from the ability to access basic health services at home, but those whose care has been most significantly enhanced are poor, elderly, members of marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ+ community, and/or those who live in remote areas of the country. For example, the total number of telehealth visits in Medicare increased from less than 1 million to more than 50 million during COVID. 

There are currently hundreds of proposals pending before state and federal legislatures that address extending or expanding telehealth beyond the pandemic’s public health emergency. Current changes to telehealth regulations include loosened restrictions around telephone-based check-ins and the allowance for telehealth visits between providers and persons across state borders. Before the pandemic, patients filled a prescription after first meeting with a doctor in-person, but telehealth expansion has eliminated the required in-person appointment. Telehealth treatment for addiction is also on the rise, with addiction-specific treatments available online. General mental health resources are also increasingly accessible virtually and by phone. Now that these practices are commonplace, regulators are looking to pass legislation that will maintain this ease of service.

The expansion of telehealth has proven especially effective for the LGBTQ+ community. Easing accessibility of telehealth and prescriptions reduces the cost of care for routine medicines and check-ups for conditions that disproportionately affect the LGBTQ+ community, such as HIV. Increased availability of telehealth mental resources is critical for all youth, but especially for those in the marginalized LGBTQ+ community. Through online resources, transgender adults can safely and reliably access gender-affirming healthcare including hormone replacement therapy and counseling with specialized professionals. Additionally, telehealth access can reduce or eliminate the stigma and discrimination that LGBTQ+ individuals face daily when selecting providers, especially in remote or rural areas where there may be few providers to choose from and even fewer knowledgeable about and sympathetic to the special health care needs of LGBTQ+ individuals.   Making permanent the COVID-19 exemptions currently in place that regulate telehealth services will have far-reaching, positive impacts for the LGBTQ+ community.

Rural need for telehealth

An estimated 2.9 to 3.8 million Americans living in rural and remote parts of the country identify as LGBTQ+ and deserve high-quality and informed healthcare. Accessing a healthcare provider is, in general, more challenging in rural areas. Consider, for example, costs associated with distance. To add insult to injury, where providers are available in rural communities, the potential for discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals and misdiagnosis of medical conditions is prevalent. Lack of access to sympathetic providers or specialized providers makes telehealth a crucial tool for the rural LGBTQ+ community. 

Given the need for broadband access to ensure quality telehealth services (to access video consultations, for example), the quality of an individual’s access to broadband services will directly affect their health care experience. Rural Americans are routinely left behind in broadband deployment, contributing to the digital divide, or the gap in use of online resources. Improvements to broadband access is key for expanding the reach of telehealth services across the country, especially in rural America. The recently enacted infrastructure law includes $65 billion in new broadband funding. It must be rolled out quickly to ensure marginalized communities in rural areas gain from improvements to broadband access and the telehealth resources that come along with it. 

Telehealth has become a critical tool to expand access for all patients, but especially the LGBTQ+ community. Marginalized individuals benefit the most from increased telehealth access and those living in rural areas may be the most significantly impacted. Telehealth offers a number of benefits including facilitating community health and social wellness, the delivery of gender-affirming medical care, accessible mental health care, and ease of prescription access.

Recently relaxed regulations around telehealth delivery have increased the reach of these services and provided healthcare to individuals who may have gone without care. Rural and remote marginalized communities, such as the LGBTQ+ community, will experience an especially positive impact from telehealth, and increasing rural broadband access is critical to expanding high-quality, informed healthcare to LGBTQ+ individuals across America.  Crucially, Congress can permanently expand telehealth services and capitalize on the recent infrastructure law to roll out high-speed broadband that facilitates telehealth in areas with limited internet access.  Without congressional action, many of the benefits marginalized communities have experienced from telehealth services will expire thereby reducing or eliminating supportive and specialized care options for these communities.  

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Carlos Gutierrez is deputy director and general counsel for the LGBT Technology Partnership & Institute, which works to improve access, increase inclusion, ensure safety and empower entrepreneurship for LGBTQ+ communities around technology.

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