Senators call for permanent expansion of telehealth following COVID-19 pandemic

Sen. Lisa Murkowski joined a bipartisan group of senators in sending a letter to senate leadership on Monday, calling for the permanent expansion of telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries established during the COVID-19 pandemic. The letter notes that telehealth provisions from the CONNECT for Health Act were included in COVID-19 legislation, but that those provisions will end if congressional leadership doesn’t take action.

“Telehealth has proven to be pivotal for many patients during the current pandemic, ensuring they receive the care they need while reducing the risk of infection and the further spread of COVID-19,” write the senators. “Expanded Medicare coverage of telehealth services on a permanent basis—where clinically appropriate and with appropriate guardrails and beneficiary protections in place—would ensure that telehealth continues to be an option for all Medicare beneficiaries after the pandemic ends.”

 

 

The senators specifically point to provisions in COVID legislation that allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive certain telehealth requirements, allow FQHCs and RHCs to provide distant site telehealth services, and allow the use of telehealth to conduct the face-to-face visit required to recertify eligibility for hospice care.

“Because of these new authorities provided by Congress, Medicare has expanded coverage of telehealth services for the duration of the pandemic to include all areas of the country—as well as allowing a patient’s home to serve as an originating site for telehealth. In addition, more types of health care providers—including FQHCs and RHCs that provide primary care in rural and underserved areas—are able to furnish and bill Medicare for telehealth services,” they write.

The relaxing of these telehealth rules contributed to a major increase in telehealth utilization in Medicare. The senators reference data that points to an 11,718% increase in the number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services between March 7 and April 18.

“Americans have benefited significantly from this expansion of telehealth and have come to rely on its availability. Congress should expand access to telehealth services on a permanent basis so that telehealth remains an option for all Medicare beneficiaries both now and after the pandemic. Doing so would assure patients that their care will not be interrupted when the pandemic ends. It would also provide certainty to health care providers that the costs to prepare for and use telehealth would be a sound long-term investment,” write the senators.

The bipartisan group also calls on the federal government to collect and analyze data on the impact of telehealth on health outcomes, quality, utilization, and spending during the pandemic.