A San Antonio physician on the front lines of caring for patients suffering from the lasting effects of COVID-19 testified before a congressional committee Thursday, urging lawmakers to ensure long COVID-19 patients can get the care they need.

Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, a physiatrist who founded the Post-COVID Recovery Clinic at University Health and UT Health San Antonio in 2020, gave the lead testimony before the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, which is chaired by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin).

The congressman moderated the hearing, titled “Bridging Health Equity Gaps for People with Disabilities and Chronic Conditions,” to discuss the health care access challenges that Americans with disabilities face, including long waiting periods for Medicare coverage.

The hearing also focused on the growing number of COVID-19 “long haulers” who are struggling to qualify for benefits in the wake of a pandemic that has driven the largest new entrant into the disability community in modern history, according to disability advocates.

“Today, I’m going to share with you a tale of two clinics,” said Verduzco-Gutierrez, chairwoman of the department of rehabilitation medicine at the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio and medical director of Rehabilitation Medicine Services at University Health.

In her role at the UT Health clinic, the doctor specializing in brain injury saw post-COVID-19 patients who had health insurance, short-term disability and family and medical leave benefits, access to specialists, health literacy and internet connectivity, she said. 

“My other clinic at the University Health system, which is the county safety-net hospital, had longer waits, fewer resources and patients who couldn’t even get [to the clinic] in person or connect to telemedicine,” Verduzco-Gutierrez said.

One of her patients in that setting had survived more than a month in intensive care, but when the woman entered the clinic, she was so weak she could barely walk and her health insurance coverage was about to end.

“She was saved by all these technologies at the front line only to be denied access to any therapy to help get her life or her job back,” she said. 

Even for those with insurance, Verduzco-Gutierrez said, insurers are often denying certain treatments for what is a complex disease. She told the committee that Congress needs to develop a comprehensive plan to help all long COVID-19 patients.

In 2019, Doggett and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) first introduced legislation that would eliminate the five-month waiting period for payment of Social Security Disability Insurance and the 24-month waiting period for Medicare coverage for people who are eligible. 

They plan to reintroduce the legislation this year, nearly two years into a life-altering pandemic that has perhaps left millions with persistent symptoms that prevent them from returning to work.

Solve Long COVID Initiative estimates that before the omicron variant appeared in December between 15 million and 30 million Americans had experienced long COVID-19. Advocates for those with the condition estimate the total income lost by sufferers already totals $88.8 billion.

Income loss was the case for Liza Fisher, a long COVID-19 patient in Houston who also testified remotely before the subcommittee. Fisher became severely ill with the virus in June 2020 and spent a week in intensive care and more days in a rehab hospital. There, she developed severe tremors and lost the ability to walk. 

Fisher applied for disability benefits only to learn of the long waiting period. She called it a system meant for people to never get better. 

“The situation has been catastrophic to my life,” she said. “I’m now not only using mobility devices, including being in a wheelchair still and having to relearn how to walk, but my family has also been affected. My mother had to move in with me and she no longer works.”

Other witnesses at the hearing also discussed policy solutions that could improve access to health care, including extending the telemedicine options that were permitted with emergency waivers due to the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services extended those waivers through March, but policymakers and health care providers worry telemedicine could be severely limited if not protected by Congress. 

“It’s really transformed health care delivery,” Doggett said. “For patients with disabilities, this has removed transportation barriers, enabled easier access to specialists and helped individuals remain safe during the pandemic.”

While telehealth has been critical for many with a disability, or for those who live in rural areas far from specialists, it’s also a key component of caring for post-COVID-19 patients, said Verduzco-Gutierrez.

“I’d say that for persons who have long COVID, telemedicine is so important because it’s just so fatiguing for them,” she said. “Even going to a doctor visit will knock them out for weeks or exacerbate their symptoms.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.