The CONNECT Act is Back, Giving Telehealth Policy a 4th Shot at Passage

The CONNECT for Health Act is back before Congress for a 4th time, and backers say the massive telehealth bill could cross the finish line this time on broad bipartisan support and pressure to set long-term connected health policy.

Will the fourth time be the charm for the CONNECT for Health Act?

The massive telehealth bill – officially known as the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies for Health Act of 2021 – has been re-introduced once again to a Congress facing increasing pressure to take a stand on long-term connected health policy. And its backers are touting the fact that the bill has the support of more than 150 organizations and half the Senate.

They’re also hoping that the surge in telehealth use during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will give the bill that final push it’s been needing since 2016.

“The last year has shown us that telehealth works, it’s popular, and it’s here to stay,” Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), one of the bill’s primary sponsors and a long-time telehealth advocate, said in a press release issued this week. “Our comprehensive bill makes it easier for more people to safely get the care they need no matter where they live.”

Timed to appear on Capitol Hill one day after President Joe Biden’s healthcare-intensive State of the Union Address, the bill contains several measures aimed at expanding access to and coverage of telehealth, including:

  • Permanently removing all geographic restrictions on telehealth and expanding the list of originating sites to include the home and other sites;
  • Allowing federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) and rural health clinics (RHCs) to provide telehealth services beyond the pandemic;
  • Giving the Health and Human Services Secretary the authority to waive telehealth restrictions, including during public health emergencies;
  • Mandating studies of how telehealth has been used during the pandemic and the effectiveness of telehealth waivers; and
  • Encouraging the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Innovation Center to test more payment models that include telehealth.

Some of the provisions in past iterations of the CONNECT for Health Act have made their way into law, including actions to improve telemental health and telestroke care and integrate telehealth in home dialysis programs, and three were included in recent COVID-19 relief bills aimed at boosting telehealth during the pandemic.

In addition, some of the provisions are already in place under emergency measures that will remain in effect until the end of the public emergency, and a number of bills currently before Congress aim to make them and other connected health strategies permanent.

Supporters of this bill and its companion piece now before the House of Representatives see this as an all-encompassing piece of legislation that can get through Congress on its own, especially with the backing of so many organizations and lawmakers. And they’re hoping to capitalize on Biden’s speech and growing complaints that Congress isn’t doing enough to advance telehealth policy.

Those supporting the legislation include the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), American Telemedicine Association, eHealth Initiative, American Medical Association, American Nurses Association and the AARP.

“The telehealth cliff is looming, casting much uncertainty and concern for the health and safety of Medicare beneficiaries, and the sustainability of our already overburdened healthcare system,” ATA CEO Ann Mond Johnson said in a separate press release. “By ensuring Medicare beneficiaries do not lose access to telehealth after the COVID-19 public health emergency ends, the CONNECT Act would protect seniors from the telehealth cliff. We urge Congress to recognize telehealth as a bipartisan, commonsense solution and speedily advance comprehensive policy that will allow permanent access to telehealth and virtual care.”

That the bill has partisan backing is important. According to Politico, the Biden Administration is intent on pursuing healthcare policies that have broad support on both sides of the aisle, “while steering clear of the inevitable intraparty tussles that come with attempting any major health reform, at least for now.”

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