By Jonathan Springston, Editor, Relias Media

A group of 30 senators are calling on their colleagues to make expansion of telehealth services permanent.

Led by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-HI, and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-MS, lawmakers sent a letter to Senate leadership urging the congressional body to extend and make permanent provisions that have expanded telehealth access to more Medicare beneficiaries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Americans have benefited significantly from this expansion of telehealth and have come to rely on its availability,” the senators wrote. “Congress should expand access to telehealth services on a permanent basis so that telehealth remains an option for all 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 healthcare providers that the costs to prepare for and use telehealth would be a sound long-term investment.”

When Congress passed the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2020 in early March and then the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act later that month, both pieces of legislation included telehealth provisions borrowed from the Schatz-sponsored (and still under debate) Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2019. First introduced in 2016, CONNECT has received bipartisan support.

“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,” Schatz and colleagues wrote this week. “In addition, more types of healthcare providers—including [those] that provide primary care in rural and underserved areas—are able to furnish and bill Medicare for telehealth services. These changes have already contributed to a dramatic increase in the use of telehealth services in Medicare. Available data show that the number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services during the pandemic increased 11,718 percent in just a month and a half.”

Telehealth has been a steadily popular subject among Relias Media readers for years. During the COVID-19 pandemic, that interest spiked. In the July issue of Medical Ethics Advisor, the cover story is about the sudden and explosive growth of telehealth during the pandemic, which demanded sorting out all kinds of logistics, reimbursement, and scheduling processes in short order. The frantic time frames to set it up did not exactly allow for careful ethical reflection.

In the July issue of Hospital Access Management, author Stacey Kusterbeck explores the evolution of the telehealth reimbursement model. “Ultimately, patient visits probably will generate less revenue for hospitals,” she wrote. “That is because telehealth generally is reimbursed at a lower rate than in-person care, and with more restrictions on what is covered.” For patients, coverage limitations for telehealth mean high out-of-pocket costs. For the field of patient access, the telehealth boom carries some broader implications. 

Elsewhere, Relias Media experts recently have written about how expanded telehealth access affects everything from emergency medicine access and prescribing narcotics to family planning. For all the latest Relias Media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, please click here.