Congress Looks to Consolidate, Coordinate Federal Telehealth Efforts

A new bill aims to align all federal telehealth programs and incentives through the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth by putting it under direct control of the Health and Human Services Secretary.

By Eric Wicklund

February 06, 2020 - Congress is considering raising the profile of the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth (OAT).

A bill recently submitted by US Reps. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) aims to take the office out of the purview of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and put it under direct supervision of the Office of the Health and Human Services Secretary.

In addition, the National Health Strategy and Data Advancement Act would give the OAT one year to come up with “a plan for the adoption, advancement and coordination of telehealth by federal agencies,” including standardizing federal telehealth grant processes and data reporting.

“Little or no coordination between federal agencies hampers our ability to extend the reach of telehealth services, and too often the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. My bill fixes this,” said Gianforte.

The bill has the support of several connected health groups, including the Health Innovation Alliance.

“It is now abundantly clear that telehealth is a key aspect of ensuring patients, regardless of location, can access care,” HIA Executive Director Joel White said in a press release. “However, to date, the federal government has not had a coordinated plan to advance telehealth. The National Telehealth Strategy and Data Advancement Act would take important steps toward increased coordination, transparency, and adoption of telehealth.”

In a separate letter signed by, among others, the American Telemedicine Association, the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME), Teladoc Health and InTouch Health, advocates said the bill would give the OAT the authority to coordinate evidence gathering and reimbursement for telehealth programs.

“For many years, the federal government has provided millions of dollars in grant funding toward projects focused on telehealth,” the letter, to Gianforte and Eshoo, said. “The grants are funded through various federal departments, including the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense, among others. While the investment in telehealth is positive, the widespread distribution of grant funds, without a central database to set data standards or house the data, impedes researchers’ ability to synthesize the information gathered across these programs and build an evidence base to support expanded reimbursement. We find this lack of coordination concerning.”

“Ultimately, this is about improving access to care and extending the reach of the American healthcare system all while leveraging modern-day technology,” Russell Branzell, president and CEO of CHIME, said in a news release.

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