Senators call for permanent changes to expand telehealth access post-pandemic

Congress took steps to quickly expand access to telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic .

Now 30 senators are calling for those changes to become permanent. 

Senator Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, wrote a letter (PDF) urging Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and minority leader Charles Schumer, D-New York, to support expanding access to telehealth services on a permanent basis so that it remains an option for Medicare beneficiaries both now and after the pandemic.

"Doing so would assure patients that their care will not be interrupted when the pandemic ends. It would also provide certainty to health care providers that the costs to prepare for and use telehealth would be a sound long-term investment," Schatz wrote in the letter, which was co-signed by a bipartisan group of senators including Commerce Chair Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi; Mark Warner, D-Virginia; Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina; and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota.

Virtual care has proven to be a lifeline for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic and the use of telehealth services has skyrocketed in the past three months.

The number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services during the pandemic increased 11,718% in just a month-and-a-half, according to Schatz.

Two of the measures Congress took up this spring—the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act 2020 and the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act)—enabled temporary policies during the COVID-19 emergency, such as allowing the Secretary of Health and Human Services the authority to waive telehealth requirements.

Because of these new authorities provided by Congress, Medicare has expanded coverage of telehealth services for the duration of the pandemic to include all areas of the country—as well as allowing a patient’s home to serve as an originating site for telehealth. In addition, more types of health care providers—including federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics that provide primary care in rural and underserved areas—can furnish and bill Medicare for telehealth services, the senators wrote in the letter.

RELATED: HHS official: 'Cat out of the bag' on telehealth but unclear what changes will stick

"Americans have benefited significantly from this expansion of telehealth and have come to rely on its availability," Schatz wrote.

Many of the temporary policies were adopted from the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2019, which Schatz introduced in October. The bipartisan legislation aims to expand Medicare coverage for telehealth services.

The healthcare industry is speculating about the future of telehealth changes after increased use during the pandemic. Health providers and medical groups have been pushing Congress and CMS to make these short-term policy changes permanent as many believe virtual care is here to stay.

The College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) wrote in a recent letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma that healthcare CIOs view telehealth and the ability for patients to access care at a distance as "critical to fighting this disease."

RELATED: Lawmakers introduce bipartisan measure to expand Medicare coverage for telehealth

Providers are starting to look at what life without a public health emergency and COVID-19 will look like, CHIME president and CEO Russell Branzell wrote.

"The increased use of telehealth has moved the country further into 21st Century medicine. The flexibilities are reducing burdens on providers and patients alike and reverting to pre-COVID telehealth policies will be seen as a step backward," Branzell wrote.

Given the recent flexibilities provided by both Congress and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, steps should be taken to measure the impact of telehealth on Medicare, the senators wrote.

The senators are calling for the federal government to collect and analyze data on the impact of telehealth on utilization, quality, health outcomes, and spending during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There is currently a scarcity of data available regarding the impact of telehealth on the Medicare program. This data would assist Congress in crafting additional policies to improve health outcomes and use resources more effectively," Schatz wrote.

RELATED: Telehealth could grow to a $250B revenue opportunity post-COVID-19: analysis

Last week, Senators Martha McSally, R-Arizona, and Doug Jones, D-Alabama, introduced bipartisan legislation to make $50 million available for a Virtual Health Pilot administered to support remote patient monitoring programs in community health centers rural health clinics during the pandemic.

Those funds would be administered by the Health Resources and Services Administration, according to the legislation.

The Health Innovation Alliance cheered the legislation, saying it provides a "vital step forward to ensuring telehealth can deliver for those who need it the most." 

"Telehealth continues to meet the challenge during this pandemic to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 while giving patients access to health care services they need. Congress needs to take action to permanently eliminate the outdated barriers to telehealth services that have been waived by the Administration," the organization said.