Health IT, mental health groups back bill to eliminate telehealth restrictions for opioid treatment

Nearly a dozen healthcare groups are voicing their support for legislation that would allow providers to utilize telehealth to treat substance abuse.

In a letter to lawmakers last week, 11 groups—including the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, HIMSS and the American Telemedicine Association—urged lawmakers to include the Expanding Telehealth Response to Ensure Addiction Treatment Act (eTREAT) Act in efforts to address the opioid crisis. The bill, introduced by a bipartisan group of senators earlier this month, would waive site restrictions on Medicare reimbursement for telehealth treatment for substance abuse disorders.

The health IT groups were joined by the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness, the National Alliance on Mental Health and Mental Health America.

The advocacy groups noted that opioid addiction is becoming particularly problematic for adults older than 50, a demographic in which opioid misuse was higher in 2014 than it was from 2002 to 2011 combined.

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Telebehavorial health is one way to get patients necessary treatment, the letter states. But federal restrictions “significantly limit the number of telebehavioral health visits available in Medicare" by limiting reimbursement to rural providers.

“More than 90% of large employers offer telehealth benefits. It’s time that Medicare caught up so seniors can also use these tools,” the groups wrote in a letter (PDF) to Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., of the Senate Finance Committee. “By removing the rural and originating site restrictions, the eTREAT Act will expand the number of providers who will treat elderly patients with substance abuse disorder in their own homes through telehealth.”

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Meanwhile, in a separate statement, Health IT Now’s Opioid Safety Alliance separately threw its support behind the legislation.

"The Medicare population has among the fastest-growing rates of opioid use disorder and the program remains unacceptably slow in embracing the power of technology to solve this crisis," HITN Opioid Safety Alliance Executive Director Joel White said in a statement. "We know that telehealth can bridge the gap of distance and stigma by allowing beneficiaries to receive care when and where they need it, but inflexible bureaucratic restrictions are putting that possibility out of reach for too many.”

A similar bill passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, along with a slew of other opioid-related bills.