430 groups demand congressional action on permanently expanding telehealth flexibilities

More than 400 advocacy groups are calling for Congress to act quickly to permanently expand flexibilities for telehealth that could go away after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency expected to run through 2021.

The 430 groups sent a letter to congressional leadership on Monday underscoring the urgency for action now amid concerns from providers that expanded telehealth access could expire abruptly after the emergency ends.

“Once it expires all bets are off,” Jen Covich Bordenick, CEO of the eHealth Initiative, told Fierce Healthcare in an interview. The initiative is one of the 430 groups that signed onto the letter.

At the onset of the pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services removed several barriers to telehealth reimbursement under Medicare. The move helped fuel a massive explosion in telehealth use among providers as patients were afraid to get care for fear of contracting COVID-19.

Some of the initial barriers that were lifted include a requirement for an in-person visit from the patient before going through telehealth.

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Other restrictions included a requirement that a provider needs to be in the same geographic area as the patient.

“We want patients to access care wherever they are,” Covich said.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation to remove barriers such as the originating site requirement.

But it remains unclear when Congress could act on the issue, such as whether the fix is included in a major infrastructure push being negotiated now or during an end-of-year spending package.

Currently, the Senate is considering a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package and a $3.5 trillion package intended to pass via reconciliation, a procedural move that ensures budget bills can bypass a filibuster and pass via a simple majority.

“It is a fully bipartisan issue,” said Krista Drobac, executive director of the Alliance for Connected Care, another group signed onto the letter. “That alone should bring it to the top of the agenda for Congress.”

Other groups who signed onto the letter include the American Medical Association, American College of Physicians and the Health Information and Management Systems Society.

Advocates also hope that any legislation approved by Congress gives regulatory flexibility to HHS and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The agencies, for example, should determine which types of providers should get reimbursement from Medicare for telehealth services.

“Rather than have that in the legislation, we want CMS to make those decisions in regulation rather than having to go back to Congress to make changes,” Covich said.