Lawmakers introduce bipartisan measure to expand Medicare coverage for telehealth

Healthcare industry groups collectively cheered bipartisan legislation introduced in both the House and Senate on Wednesday that aims to expand Medicare coverage for telehealth services.

Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), John Thune (R-S.D.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) introduced the Senate bill, known as the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2019.

Companion legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Representatives Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), and Bill Johnson (R-Ohio).

“Telehealth is the future of health care. The technology is advancing, more providers and patients are relying on it, and we have broad bipartisan support,” Schatz said in a statement. “This bill will help ensure that every American gets the care they need no matter where they live.”

RELATED: Senators reintroduce popular bill to expand coverage for telehealth, remote monitoring

Schatz and the Senate telehealth working group first introduced the CONNECT for Health Act in 2016. The bill was reintroduced in 2017 and several provisions of the CONNECT for Health Act of 2017 were enacted in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018. CMS has also made advances in covering remote patient monitoring services and other virtual services.

In April, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services finalized policies that would allow Medicare beneficiaries to receive access to telehealth services from their home rather than a healthcare facility, and that could help drive more interest in telehealth tools.

The proposed legislation introduced on Wednesday provides new authority for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive telehealth restrictions when necessary and to remove geographic and originating site restrictions for services like mental health and emergency medical care. The bill also improves the process of adding telehealth to approved services lists and adds rural health clinics and federally-qualified health centers to the list of approved telehealth sites.

Lawmakers also would require HHS to study more ways to expand telehealth services so that more people can access health care services in their own homes.

The legislation offers some changes from previous iterations, including new key measures health care experts, providers, and patient advocates agree will help improve access to care and drive down costs.

Industry groups respond

The CONNECT for Health Act of 2019 has the support of more than 100 organizations, including the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association, and the Health Information and Management Systems Society.

In a statement, AHA executive vice president Tom Nickels said 76% of U.S. hospitals connect with patients and consulting practitioners at a distance through the use of telehealth. Yet, systemic barriers to widespread adoption of telehealth in the Medicare program remain, he said.

The CONNECT for Health Act proposes many changes that would allow for increased access to telehealth services for patients and remove barriers to adoption and use by hospitals and other providers, he said.

RELATED: Medicare’s telehealth utilization nudges upward, but overall rates still hamstrung by payment policies

Health Innovation Alliance Executive Director Joel White said the legislation helps to modernize an "antiquated delivery system" and brings the health care system into the 21st century by removing barriers to state-of-the-art patient care through telehealth services.

"Increased access to telehealth is urgently needed to help meet the health needs of the swiftly changing demographics of our senior population. The CONNECT for Health Act’s expansion of telehealth coverage in the Medicare program also will spur increased investment and innovation in delivery redesign to benefit all patients,” Patrice A. Harris, M.D., AMA president said.

Currently, the U.S. has 30,000 fewer physicians than it needs. That number is on track to reach 90,000 within the next decade, according to Morgan Reed, executive director of the Connected Health Initiative, a coalition of health technology innovators, health policy professionals, and patient advocacy.

"That shortage is going to hit hardest in communities that are already underserved including remote rural regions, Native American communities, and low-income urban areas. Technology-driven connected health tools enable doctors to treat traditionally underserved patients, more closely monitor for health complications, and spend more time providing care, not doing paperwork," Reed said in a statement.    

David Ryan, general manager of health & life sciences at Intel and a board member of the Alliance for Connected Care, said the legislation would help to eliminate restrictions that are preventing widespread adoption of digital health tools among providers serving Medicare patients.

“At Intel we have seen how telehealth and remote patient monitoring are facilitating better patient outcomes. This legislation will facilitate the adoption of digital technology that is key to the future of healthcare for our nation’s seniors,” Ryan said.