A bipartisan group of U.S. representatives has reintroduced a bill aimed at expanding access to telehealth beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act of 2021 legislation was introduced this past week by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., cosponsored by Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt., Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, David Schweikert, R-Ariz., John Curtis, R-Utah; and Doris Matsui, D-Calif.
“Telehealth has played a major role in keeping vulnerable patients safe during this pandemic, and this bipartisan legislation keeps telehealth expansion in place,” said Johnson in a statement.
“Increasing access to telehealth has long been a priority of mine, and I encourage my colleagues to support this important bill; it’s time for Congress to make telehealth expansion and access permanent,” he added.
WHY IT MATTERS
The bill, which was first introduced in July 2020, would help safeguard access to virtual care after COVID-19 via four main provisions. According to a press statement from Thompson’s office, it would:
- Eliminate most geographic and originating site restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare and establishing the patient’s home as an eligible distant site.
- Authorize the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service to continue reimbursement for telehealth for 90 days beyond the end of the public health emergency.
- Make permanent the disaster waiver authority, enabling Health and Human Service to expand telehealth in Medicare during all future emergencies and disasters.
- Require a study on the use of telehealth during COVID, including its costs, uptake rates, measurable health outcomes, and racial and geographic disparities.
The bill avoids some of the thornier issues around telehealth, such as coverage parity or interstate licensing issues, while making permanent broadly popular policies such as eliminating geographic and originating site restrictions.
“This unprecedented pandemic has proven that telehealth not only works, but that it’s essential,” said Welch.
“These practical telehealth provisions have been successfully implemented and should be continued to ensure that everyone has access to quality healthcare, no matter where they live or how mobile they are. This is a common-sense step to make sure our policies keep pace with our technology,” he added.
Advocates praised the bill’s reintroduction, noting that it would allow older adults to continue accessing a wide range of medical care.
“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,” said Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, in a statement. “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,” she added, “older adults will lose access to this important care unless Congress again takes decisive action.”
THE LARGER TREND
The widely applauded earlier version of this bill was greeted with praise and enthusiasm from a wide range of industry groups, who hailed it as an effort to keep patients from falling off a telemedicine “cliff” after the pandemic.
But despite the excitement, the bill’s momentum ground to a halt in July after being referred to committee.
Similarly, the Telehealth Modernization Act in last year’s Senate also failed to gain traction.
ON THE RECORD
“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,” said Thompson.
“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.”