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Lawmakers Push to Extend Telehealth Freedoms Past the COVID-19 Emergency

By Eric Wicklund

– With the coronavirus pandemic putting a strain on mental health services, a group of lawmakers is asking Congress to give telehealth more time to prove itself.

In a May 21 letter to Congressional leadership, 32 House members are asking that ongoing emergency efforts to relax telehealth regulations during the pandemic be continued “for a reasonable transition period following the COVID-19 emergency period to collect appropriate data to provide an adequate amount of time to determine which of those flexibilities should be continued permanently.”

The order would be included in the next COVID-19 relief bill, the lawmakers said.

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“Telehealth is proving to be an extremely successful approach in ensuring that patients are receiving mental health and addiction care during this trying and unprecedented time, and we applaud the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for expanding behavioral telehealth flexibilities, and ultimately increasing access to these essential services,” the letter states. “In particular, we are grateful that CMS is providing broader coverage of behavioral telehealth services, which has helped expand access to many individuals in rural and medically underserved areas, and allowed individuals to receive these services in their home.”

To meet the rising demand for telemental health services, federal and state agencies have enacted a number of emergency declarations since March to expand access to and coverage of connected health platforms. While expanding the number of providers able to use telehealth and including locations such as the home as distant sites for telehealth, they’ve also expanded coverage to audio-only phone and some video chat platforms that had previously been banned.

These relaxed rules are set to expire when the national emergency is declared over, but there’s a groundswell of support to extend some of the declarations so that the healthcare industry can continue to expand telehealth. Advocates also want more time to build a body of evidence to support telehealth adoption.

“The mental health of each American is vital to the overall health of our nation. Without proper access to care, we are doing a disservice to those most in need,” US Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), who drafted the letter with US Rep Paul Tonko (D-NY), said in a press release. “The mental telehealth care offered during the COVID-19 pandemic is an important step towards providing more access and quality care for individuals in need, and it’s important that these services continued to be offered following this high-stress time. Telehealth is the future of health care, and we must begin to integrate it when appropriate in order to serve everyone where they are.”

In particular, the lawmakers are asking that CMS continue to cover audio-only phone services to help people living in areas with poor internet connectivity or without access to smartphones or video-based online platforms.

“Without regular access to behavioral health services, we are concerned that thousands of individuals will be seeking emergency care, with many turning to substance misuse or suicide risks,” the letter concludes. “Telehealth is proving to be a successful means in bridging this gap of care, and it is critical that once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, access to behavioral health services does not.”

Among those supporting the letter are Mental Health America, the National Association for Behavioral Health, the National Council for Behavioral Health, the American Psychological Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.