As Epidemic Fears Mount, CMS Asked to Loosen Reins on Telehealth

Updated: Mar 17

Connected health advocates are asking CMS to loosen restrictions on Medicare reimbursement for telehealth during a public emergency, so that providers can prepare for a potential COVID-19 outbreak.


By Eric Wicklund


February 28, 2020 - Telehealth and mHealth have potential to help health systems tackle a potential COVID-19 epidemic in much the same way that the technology was used to handle SARS and Ebola outbreaks. And for that reason, providers have been low-key in talking about telehealth.

But with lawmakers poised to apply billions of dollars in federal funding to prepare for an epidemic, advocates are now speaking up. And they’re targeting a familiar barrier to telehealth adoption: Medicare restrictions and reimbursement.


This week the Alliance for Connected Care sent a letter to House and Senate leaders asking that any COVID-19 legislation include language calling on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to allow for Medicare reimbursement for telehealth during a public health emergency.


“Telehealth can help patients experiencing coronavirus symptoms access medical professionals quickly, and reduce the risk of exposing others,” the organization said. “While physicians cannot confirm a diagnosis of coronavirus through a telehealth interface, they can screen patients, assign a risk category, answer questions and recommend the next steps.”


The group is calling on lawmakers to mandate that the Health and Human Services Department waive restrictions in traditional Medicare programs that limit how and where telehealth can be used, so that programs can receive Medicare funding for connected health programs addressing COVID-19.


That provision is included in the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act, which was reintroduced last October.


“Including this provision in the upcoming supplemental legislation will encourage health systems and others to leverage telehealth in their communities, allowing for critical care connections,” the alliance said in its letter. “This expanded capacity will help preserve access to in-person care for those in critical need and allow the majority of initial screenings to happen outside the hospital.”


According to Politico, the idea of improving Medicare reimbursement for telehealth during public emergencies has the backing of several telehealth and mHealth groups, including the American Telemedicine Association, eHealth Initiative and Partnership for Artificial Intelligence. It’s also being backed by several lawmakers, especially those who co-sponsored the CONNECT for Health Act.


As with past public emergencies and flu outbreaks, health systems have used telehealth to screen patients at home, thus reducing stress on crowded hospitals and clinics and keeping potentially infected people in their homes. They can also use mHealth and telemedicine within the hospital to isolate and treat infected patients.

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