The Connected Health Initiative on Monday published an open letter to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., expressing support for the Telehealth Modernization Act and stressing the urgency of safeguarding access to virtual care before the public health emergency is set to expire.
The initiative, a coalition of industry stakeholders including providers, payers and vendors, applauded in its letter congressional efforts to make permanent changes to Medicare’s statutory restrictions on telehealth coverage.
“The Telehealth Modernization Act is a bold step forward in taking the lessons learned from providers, patients and payers across the healthcare spectrum during the COVID-19 crisis to bring the Medicare and Medicaid system into the 21st century. This legislation will make permanent many of the asks CHI spent years advocating for, including waiving originating site restrictions,” said CHI Acting Executive Director Morgan Reed in a statement provided to Healthcare IT News.
WHY IT MATTERS
The Telehealth Modernization Act, which Alexander introduced in the Senate in late July, would amend Medicare originating site rules for telehealth to include a patient’s home and relax the geographic restrictions on telehealth provisions. It would also expand the types of practitioners eligible to furnish telehealth services and enhance telehealth services for federally qualified health centers and rural health centers, among other provisions.
In its letter, the CHI supported these provisions and urged Alexander and his colleagues to go further.
“There is no longer a cogent reason to continue to impose a statutory restriction on Medicare’s coverage of these services tied to rural, qualified health professional shortage areas, nor should we stop at enabling coverage at the ‘home of an individual,'” wrote Reed.
Reed noted, however, that it’s imperative to both future-proof the statute and to ensure that critical patient populations will not be excluded.
“Accordingly, we appreciate that the Telehealth Modernization Act does not require Medicare to cover telehealth services in a broader range of clinical circumstances, but rather that it removes the statutory restrictions that were put in place when video calls were impossible except in very limited circumstances where the patient was located at another healthcare facility,” Reed wrote.
“Technological capabilities surpassed the law by leaps and bounds in this case, as smart devices can facilitate telehealth visits no matter the location of the patient so long as there is a stable broadband connection,” Reed continued.
Reed noted virtual care’s role in limiting the spread of COVID-19 by keeping patients at home rather than in the office, and warned of the consequences if Congress does not act to safeguard telehealth before the public health emergency expires, currently set for October 23.
“The sudden unavailability of live video and audio services will force Medicare beneficiaries to travel to health care sites to access care in person, possibly putting them at greater risk after the PHE lapses and straining Medicare providers,” wrote Reed.
THE LARGER TREND
The Telehealth Modernization Act is one of several bills put forth in Congress aimed at safeguarding access to virtual care after the pandemic.
In July, the House introduced the Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act, bipartisan legislation that would eliminate most geographic and originating site restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare; authorize the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to continue reimbursement for telehealth for 90 days beyond the end of the public health emergency; enable the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to expand telehealth in Medicare; and require a study on the use of telehealth during COVID.
“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 regarding the bill.
“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,” Johnson continued.
ON THE RECORD
“On behalf of the CHI Steering Committee and membership, I want to thank Sen. Alexander and the members of the Senate HELP Committee for recognizing that telehealth and other digital health tools are the future of healthcare delivery. And they are critical in times of a public health emergency like COVID-19, revolutionizing delivery of care to Medicare beneficiaries and other underserved populations now,” said Reed in the statement to Healthcare IT News.
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