Amazon, Walmart and hundreds of providers lobby Senate for extension of telehealth policies

Big tech and retail giants like Amazon and Walmart joined hundreds of provider groups, hospitals and virtual care companies pressing Congress to take action on telehealth legislation this fall.

More than 370 organizations sent a joint letter (PDF) to bipartisan leadership of the U.S. Senate to pass a two-year extension of important telehealth policies enacted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, those policies are set to expire 151 days after the end of the public health emergency.

Policy certainty beyond the COVID-19 public health emergency is essential to continuing access to telehealth for both Medicare and commercial market patients, the groups wrote in the letter.

The hundreds of employers, providers and health tech companies that signed the letter represent a spectrum of organizations with customers and patients that are impacted by telehealth policy. The signers include consumer groups representing mental health, chronic disease and primary care as well as providers including physicians, nurses and physical therapists along with employers representing millions of Americans who receive their coverage through their jobs.

The groups urge the Senate to pass legislation that would extend critical telehealth flexibilities, including provisions to waive provider and patient location limitations, remove in-person requirements for telemental health, ensure continued access to clinically appropriate controlled substances without in-person requirements and increase access to telehealth services in the commercial market, including for those with a high-deductible health plans coupled with a health savings account.

“More than 400 members of the House voted to extend telehealth flexibilities in July, and it’s time for the Senate to follow. Without more policy certainty around telehealth, beneficiary access could be compromised,” said Krista Drobac, executive director of the Alliance for Connected Care. “The House created the momentum, we hope the Senate will seize it and enact comprehensive telehealth legislation this fall.”

The joint letter was co-led by the Alliance for Connected Care, the American Telemedicine Association, the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, the Connected Health Initiative, the Consumer Technology Association, Executives for Health Innovation, the Health Innovation Alliance, HIMSS and the Partnership to Advance Virtual Care.

With expanded flexibilities, telehealth has helped bridge gaps in care, especially in communities facing significant workforce shortages, the groups wrote. Almost 3 in 4 Americans “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that patients should have the option to receive telehealth, even after the pandemic, which increases to 84% among recent telehealth patients, according to a poll from the Alliance for Connected Care and Morning Consult.

Most recently, reports from the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General showed dually eligible beneficiaries were more likely than others to use telehealth to ensure access to care and that telehealth expanded access for minority populations.

Telehealth is helping address the crisis-level mental health and primary care shortages and has expanded access to care for underserved communities, according to the groups.

Patients who utilize telehealth as part of their care plan face the possibility of a forced return to in-person care. "This is particularly concerning for those utilizing telehealth to reach experts at longer distances, for access to mental and behavioral health practitioners, and those receiving ongoing remote care for chronic conditions," the groups wrote.