By Mike Miliard July 16, 2020
The Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act seeks to expand the promise of virtual care, even once the pandemic has subsided, by eliminating restrictions, ensuring access and studying its ability to address disparities and improve outcomes.
A new bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday aims to ensure telehealth is able to continue to build on its potential in the years ahead, by making permanent some policies enacted during the pandemic and protecting Medicare beneficiaries' ability to engage in virtual care.
WHY IT MATTERS The Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act is co-sponsored by Rep. David Schweikert, R-Arizona, co-chair of the Congressional Telehealth Caucus, along with Reps. Mike Thompson, D-California, Peter Welch, D-Vermont, Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, and Doris Matsui, D-California.
The legislation seeks to push forward with wider access to and use of telehealth – even beyond this public health emergency with its numerous waivers, allowances and temporary rule changes.
Specifically, according to Schweikert's office, it would focus on:
Eliminating most geographic and originating site restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare and establishing the patient’s home as an eligible distant site so patients can receive telehealth care at home and doctors can still be reimbursed,
Preventing a sudden loss of telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries by authorizing the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service to continue reimbursement for telehealth for 90 days beyond the end of the public health emergency,
Making permanent the disaster waiver authority, enabling Health and Human Service to expand telehealth in Medicare during all future emergencies and disasters, and
Requiring a study on the use of telehealth during COVID, including its costs, uptake rates, measurable health outcomes, and racial and geographic disparities.
THE LARGER TREND The bill was immediately greeted with enthusiastic approval from a chorus of healthcare industry groups.
"During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has allowed our nation’s healthcare system to continue to effectively deliver needed care virtually, ensuring patients can safely access care when and where they need it," said American Telemedicine Association CEO Ann Mond Johnson, in a statement. "However, some of the flexibilities put in place to allow greater access to telehealth will immediately be reversed when the public health emergency expires unless Congress acts to preserve them.
"We are grateful to the bipartisan House Telehealth Caucus champions, for their efforts to keep patients and healthcare providers from falling off the telehealth ‘cliff,'" Johnson added, noting that the bill addresses most priorities listed in the recent letter to Congress signed by ATA and 339 other organizations, such as removing geographic restrictions, enhancing HHS' authority to determine appropriate telehealth services and providers and ensuring rural provider can offer telehealth to underserved patient.
"Many healthcare organizations and their patients have welcomed the benefits that telehealth provided during the pandemic and they want them to continue," said Geisinger CIO John Kravitz, who is also chair of the CHIME Board of Trustees. "Extending telehealth flexibilities beyond the public health emergency will allow clinicians to continue to safely treat patients while battling this highly contagious disease."
"HIMSS and PCHAlliance applaud the introduction of the telehealth bill sponsored by Representative Thompson and members of the House Telehealth Caucus, and call upon Congress to take swift action and make permanent the flexibilities that have supported the use of evidence-based connected care technologies to improve healthcare quality, access, and value for all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Hal Wolf, President and CEO of HIMSS, Healthcare IT News' parent organization.
ON THE RECORD "It is clear that telemedicine is part of the future of our healthcare system, and should be continued as an attainable tool post-pandemic," said Rep. Schweikert in a statement. "Telehealth services are allowing society to become safer, healthier, and more effective at delivering the care patients deserve. This legislation will ensure individuals have a choice in how they receive their care, and I am proud to give patients the care and control they deserve through this affordable innovation."
"This unprecedented pandemic has proven that telehealth not only works, but that it’s essential," added 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 commonsense step to make sure our policies keep pace with our technology."