New House, Senate bills aim to make telehealth expansion permanent in Medicare, Medicaid

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New bills introduced in the House and Senate signal Congress' intent to make telehealth flexibilities in Medicare and Medicaid permanent after the pandemic ends. (Getty Images)

A pair of bills recently introduced in the House and Senate aim to ensure that a boom in telehealth use during the pandemic does not go away.

A House bill introduced Monday and a Senate bill introduced Tuesday both aim to make certain telehealth flexibilities permanent for Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries.

“The pandemic has created challenges for everyone, but it’s also shown us that technology can provide safe and dependable communication between patients and their doctors,” said Rep. Jason Smith, R-Missouri, one of the co-sponsors of the House bill alongside Rep. Josh Gottenheimer, D-New Jersey. “Innovations including telehealth and audio-only capabilities will improve efficiency, reduce costs and increase access to healthcare providers.”

At the onset of the pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services waived key barriers to telehealth use, enabling providers to offer audio-only telehealth services and ensuring that originating site requirements were removed. The new flexibility helped greatly expand the use of telehealth as providers could get Medicare reimbursement and help patients scared of going to the doctor’s office or hospital for fear of contracting COVID-19.

But the telehealth flexibilities will only last through the extent of the COVID-19 public health emergency, which will eventually lapse as the pandemic gets under control.

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CMS officials have said that they need Congress’ help to make the flexibilities permanent.

The House’s Permanency for Audio-Only Telehealth Act would enable audio-only telehealth services for Medicare enrollees.

The legislation would also remove geographic and originating site restrictions to ensure that Medicare beneficiaries’ homes can be telehealth originating sites for audio-only services.

The Medical Group Management Association applauded the legislation.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, audio-only visits have provided a lifeline to patients who are unable to attend visits in person or participate in telehealth visits due to lack of broadband access or necessary equipment to facilitate the visits,” said Anders Gilberg, MGMA’s senior vice president of government affairs.

The bill builds on similar legislation introduced in the House in March that would enable audio-only telehealth services for Medicare Advantage plans. Currently, providers can offer telehealth services under MA plans but only if they involve a video component.

Congress is not just looking at how to expand access to telehealth for Medicare.

Sens. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced legislation on Tuesday that seeks to increase telehealth access for Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) beneficiaries, according to a report in Politico.

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The legislation would require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to give guidance to states to increase telehealth access for CHIP and Medicaid. This would include outlining what services can be reimbursed by telehealth.

The bipartisan nature of both the House and Senate legislation underscores the likelihood they could get through Congress and signed into law.

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra has repeatedly underscored the need for legislative help if the boom in telehealth wants to continue.

“COVID has taught us so much,” Becerra said during his confirmation hearing in February. If we don’t learn from COVID how telehealth can save lives then we are going to be in trouble.”