Senate budget agreement includes telehealth expansion and Meaningful Use reform

A two-year bipartisan budget deal announced by Senate leaders on Wednesday includes provisions to expand telehealth coverage and scale back Meaningful Use regulations.

The House of Representatives addressed the same issues in its short-term funding bill approved earlier this week that would have provided federal funding for a six-week period and averted a partial government shutdown by midnight on Thursday.

RELATED: Changes to telehealth reimbursement, Meaningful Use included in House short-term funding proposal

The Senate’s bill is far more expansive and features a slew of healthcare extenders, including $6 billion in funding for mental health issues and opioid addiction, $2 billion for the National Institutes of Health and a four-year extension for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The deal still must pass through the House where Democrats are pushing Republicans on a commitment to protect immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.

“The budget deal doesn’t have everything Democrats want; it doesn’t have everything the Republicans want, but it has what the American people need,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Wednesday.

But the bill includes health IT sweeteners like the CHRONIC Care Act, which builds telehealth benefits into Medicare Advantage plans beginning in 2020. The spending bill would also allow accountable care organizations to expand the use of telehealth by allowing a patient’s home to be considered an originating site. Telestroke service would also get a boost beginning in 2019.

Telehealth expansion has received bipartisan support in Congress. Lack of reimbursement has been a longstanding concern among providers and industry groups and a frequently cited a barrier to adoption.  

RELATED: More than half of providers plan to expand telehealth offerings, survey shows

Like the House bill, Senate leaders included legislation sponsored by Rep. Michael C. Burgess, M.D., R-Texas, that would strike portions of the HITECH Act to prevent Meaningful Use requirements from becoming more complex moving forward.

That regulatory change has received backing from health IT associations, including the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA). Jeff Smith, AMIA's vice presidents of public policy, told FierceHealthcare the bill would give the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services more control over policy tied to health IT adoption and allow the agency to be more responsive to industry feedback.

“Having said that, CMS must continue to be judicious in its policy development meant to encourage health IT adoption, implementation, use, and upgrades,” Smith said in an email. “We find ourselves in a position where CMS policyonce meant to spur innovative use of health ITshould now be seen as lever to mitigate disparities among providers who effectively leverage health IT and those who do not.”