Telemedicine reimbursement, broadband growth gain bipartisan support on Capitol Hill

Telehealth advocates gathered on Capitol Hill Tuesday to push for the advancement of the service through reimbursement and broadband growth to reach patients in rural areas.

During a hearing by the Senate subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet, Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker (R) said he will reintroduce a bill--the Telehealth Advancement Act--to extend Medicare coverage for telemedicine services to remote areas of the country.

American Telemedicine Association CEO Jonathan Linkous spoke about the importance of Medicare reimbursement, as well as moves that can be made today to open up more opportunity for the use of the services. One example, he said, is a waiver from the Secretary of the Health and Human Services so that accountable care organizations and some others in the Medicare program can use telemedicine.   

"That authority has been there since the program began, and we have asked on numerous occasions to have those restrictions waived, and yet they have not done it," he said.

Broadband access and connectivity was another point of concern. Without a robust telecommunications network, increased telehealth services "simply will not happen; we won't be able to reach people where they are," Kristi Henderson, chief telehealth and innovation officer at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said at the hearing.

Linkous agreed on the importance of the Federal Communication Commission's program to increase broadband access for rural healthcare services but added that he is "constantly disappointed" that the FCC has not done more with the program.

"There's great good that's been done … and yet we still have the same problems of it not being used enough," Linkous said. "The program is too engineered and needs a lot of fixes; frankly, I would encourage this committee to really talk to the commission about how it can improve this program."

That program, called the Rural Health Care Program, can spend up to $400 million a year, according to a recent post in Health Affairs. However, total spending commitments were only $178 million in 2013 and $65 million in 2014.

 About a dozen senators came out in support for increased use and reimbursement of telemedicine during the hearing. "The participation by senators is a testimony to the interest that we have in this issue," Wicker said.

The hearing comes on the heels of news last week that expansion of telemedicine services reimbursed by Medicare may be left out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's 21st Century Cures bill. Officials couldn't agree on how to lower the barriers to Medicare payments, according to reports. However, Noelle Clemente, press secretary for the committe, said in an email to FierceHealthIT that "telemedicine is a priority for the committee."

To learn more:
- listen to the hearing