Lawmakers Reintroduce Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Bill, Hoping for a Better Outcome

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The Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act is back, after failing to make it through Congress last year. Will lawmakers see enough value in telehealth to make it a priority this year?

Telehealth strategies

With a new administration taking over in Washington, a group of lawmakers is looking to put the emphasis back on passing long-term telehealth legislation.

The group this week re-introduced the Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act, which aims to make permanent some emergency telehealth access and coverage rules put in place over the past year to address the coronavirus pandemic.

“Telehealth has been a game changer during the Coronavirus pandemic, ensuring that patients can continue to get care while reducing the spread of the virus during routine medical visits,” US Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) said in a press release. “However, patients could face an abrupt end to the practice once the pandemic is over, even though it’s long been a proven and cost-effective way to get care. … This bill ensures the expansion of telehealth can stay in place and be used for continuous care during future disasters and emergencies.”

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Eliminate most geographic and originating site restrictions on Medicare coverage for telehealth and include the patient’s home as an eligible distant site;
  • Authorize the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service to continue covering telehealth services outlined in in the emergency measures for 90 days after the end of the public health emergency;
  • Give the Health and Human Services Secretary authority to issue waivers to expand Medicare coverage for telehealth during future emergencies; and
  • Mandate a study of telehealth use during the PHE, including an analysis of costs, adoption rates, measurable health outcomes and racial and geographic disparities.

Thompson’s co-sponsors are Reps. Doris Matsui (D-CA), Peter Welch (D-VT), Bill Johnson (R-OH) and David Schweikert (R-AZ), all members of the Congressional Telehealth Caucus. All five sponsored the bill when it was originally introduced in July 2020.

As with the previous bill, the new bill has the support of, among others, the American Telemedicine Association.

“For decades, the Medicare statute has severely limited telehealth services while other payers increasingly relied on telehealth to provide care to patients when and where they need it,” ATA CEO Ann Mond Johnson said in a press release. “This disparity has become shockingly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, when in-person care has not been an option for most patients. While Congress and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services acted quickly to implement waivers to allow for the reimbursement of telehealth services during the COVID19 public health emergency, older adults will lose access to this important care unless Congress again takes decisive action.”

While reintroducing the bill gives it new emphasis in front of the 117th Congress, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the previous bill – and roughly a dozen others focused on connected health – failed to make it through last year’s Congress. In addition, the economic stimulus bill negotiated by Congress and signed by then-President Donald Trump at the end of 2020 included some telehealth provisions, but fell far short of expectations.

As a result, the pressure will be on this Congress to do something substantial to advance telehealth adoption. And the challenge for telehealth advocates will be to find a way to capture lawmakers’ attention at a time when there’s a lot of competition.

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