ATA urges HHS to protect telehealth coverage by extending public health emergency through 2022

Woman having telehealth visit on her laptop
The "telehealth cliff,” the impending end of virtual care coverage flexibilities after the termination of the public health emergency, looms over patients, the American Telemedicine Association wrote in a letter. (Getty/Drazen Zigic)

The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) has urged the Biden administration to extend the COVID-19 public health emergency through the end of 2022 to protect telehealth coverage expanded during the pandemic.

In a letter (PDF) addressed to Secretary Xavier Becerra of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the organization referred to the looming “telehealth cliff,” the impending end of virtual care coverage flexibilities after the termination of the PHE.

“We recognize there remain many unknowns related to the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic over the next 12 to 24 months. However, we implore you to provide as much predictability and certainty as you can to ensure adequate warning before patients are pushed over this looming cliff,” ATA CEO Ann Mond Johnson wrote in the letter.

In January, acting HHS Secretary Norris Cochran told governors the PHE would likely extend through 2021, which gave providers and patients a feeling of stability in the understanding that “flexibilities—including those for telehealth—would not be taken away without warning,” Johnson wrote.

Oct. 15, Becerra extended the PHE through Jan. 16, 2022, the sixth renewal since the PHE was first declared in January 2020.

No further indications about the long-term status of the PHE have come from the agency.

The ATA noted that extending the PHE through the end of 2022 would also provide added time to enact more permanent telehealth policies “without creating a temporary and frustrating gap in access for Medicare beneficiaries.”

RELATED: 430 groups demand congressional action on permanently expanding telehealth flexibilities

Various legislators have indicated their support for these policies, but none have significantly progressed through Congress.

In August, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released a proposal in the annual Physician Fee Schedule to extend telehealth flexibilities through 2023 instead of terminating them when the public health emergency ends.

While physician groups praised CMS for parts of the proposal, they balked at certain mental health telehealth requirements like an in-person visit within six months of every virtual appointment and called for more permanent telehealth policies.

RELATED: Docs press CMS for permanent telehealth flexibility, relief from pay cuts in fee schedule

Becerra told The Washington Post in June that the administration supports long-term telehealth usage and will work to ensure equitable access to virtual care.

“We are absolutely supportive of efforts to give us the authority to utilize telehealth in greater ways,” Becerra said in the interview.

Johnson implored the HHS to signal their intention soon so providers and patients can feel secure in their access to virtual care.

“As the nation grapples with the uncertainty of the continued COVID-19 crisis, we request that you offer some sense of predictability so that patients can be assured their access to lifesaving, quality health care services will not go away in the imminent future,” she wrote.