House committee passes bill to build telehealth coverage into Medicare Advantage plans

A bipartisan bill that would make telehealth services a core benefit in Medicare Advantage plans drew broad support from lawmakers on its way to unanimously passing through the House Committee on Ways and Means.

H.R. 3727 (PDF), introduced by four representatives on Monday, easily passed through a committee markup on Wednesday. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle commended the legislation that would require Medicare Advantage plans to include telehealth services as a base benefit beginning in 2020. Currently, insurers can offer telemedicine as an add-on benefit that is paid for through rebates or additional premiums.

“This bill is about upgrading current law to not just allow but actually to encourage the use of telehealth technology to bring the best healthcare possible for our seniors, while also working to address those skyrocketing healthcare costs,” Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., said during the hearing.

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Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who co-sponsored the bill, also requested that Committee Chairman Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, commit to expanding telehealth coverage under Medicare parts A and B. That sentiment was echoed by other lawmakers who highlighted the ability for telehealth services to improve access, particularly in rural parts of the state.

Health IT Now Executive Director Joel White said the bill’s unanimous passage “sends a powerful message” that Congress is committed to expanded access to telehealth. In a letter (PDF) to the representatives co-sponsoring the bill, White said the legislation would eliminate overutilization concerns that often nag telehealth expansion proposals because under Medicare Advantage, “that incentive is flipped on its head.”

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The glaring fissures between Democrats and Republicans regarding other areas of health policy have been notably absent when it comes to telehealth, but it's still unclear whether any bills will actually make it through Congress. On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health passed the Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine (FAST) Act (PDF) which expands Medicare coverage for telestroke services.  

In May, the Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act of 2017, that also allows MA plans to expand telehealth benefits, unanimously passed a Senate Finance Committee. The Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2017, that would expand Medicare coverage for telehealth and remote monitoring, has also garnered broad support from lawmakers, as well as groups like HIMSS, the American Medical Association and the American Telemedicine Association.