Senate Finance Committee details telehealth 'Bill of Rights' for mental health care services

A Senate panel outlined what flexibilities in telehealth should be made permanent for mental health services, including codifying audio-only mental health coverage and removing Medicare’s in-person visit requirement. 

The Senate Finance Committee released a discussion draft Thursday outlining the legislative priorities for telehealth services to address mental health. The discussion draft is expected to be part of a larger package the committee is working on to address mental health reforms. 

“The pandemic made clear that telehealth is a game-changer, particularly so Americans can get mental health care when they need it,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, the committee chair, said. “These policies will help strengthen access, awareness and support for telehealth, including by creating a ‘bill of rights’ for information on the availability of telehealth for mental health care.”

Several of the policies outlined in the discussion draft—which is the first step to developing legislative language—that address telehealth include:

  • Removing Medicare’s requirements for in-person visits in order to qualify for telehealth reimbursement from Medicare. Instead, providers would attest to certain quality and program integrity standards for mental health services via telehealth.
  • Codifying the current policy of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to reimburse providers for audio-only mental health services. It would also require CMS to create “additional safeguards … to protect care quality and program integrity,” according to a fact sheet on the discussion draft.
  • Creating a “Bill of Rights” for telehealth mental health services. This should include requiring traditional fee-for-service and Medicare Advantage plans to “publicly post information on Medicare beneficiaries’ rights to receive telehealth services for mental health care, as well as information on approximate cost-sharing obligations for telemental health services,” the committee’s release said.
  • Requiring Medicare to give providers vital guidance on how they can improve access to telehealth services for their patients that have limited proficiency with English and have hearing or vision impairments.

The legislation would also mandate the federal government collect data on telehealth trends and care quality and issue reports to update lawmakers. 

The legislation is the latest effort by Congress to make permanent key flexibilities for telehealth services. CMS waived barriers to telehealth reimbursement at the start of the pandemic more than two years ago.

However, those flexibilities only run through the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, which could go away later this fall.

CMS has said that it needs authority from Congress to make some of the flexibilities permanent, and lawmakers have introduced legislation to address the issue.

Wyden has previously said that the goal of the committee is to get a bill together in the summer. The broader package is likely to address other mental health issues including improving pay parity between behavioral and physical health services from insurers.