A bill introduced this week would permanently extend Medicare coverage for telehealth services delivered by physical and occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists and audiologists.

By Eric Wicklund

November 18, 2020 – A group of lawmakers has introduced a bill that would ensure Medicare coverage for telehealth services provided by physical and occupational therapists, audiologists and speech and language pathologists.

The Expanded Telehealth Access Act, unveiled this week by some 14 US Representatives, is one of dozens of bills submitted over the past few months by lawmakers aimed permanently extending emergency measures aimed at boosting telehealth access and coverage during the coronavirus pandemic.

With access to in-person care limited because of infection fears and many patients hesitant to seek treatment, therapists are using connected health platforms to connect with patients in their homes. But those services aren’t sustainable unless payers provide telehealth coverage.

In April, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services waived limitations on telehealth coverage for physical and occupational therapists and speech language pathologists for the duration of the public health emergency created by COVID-19. Other types of specialists, including audiologists, have been lobbying for that same coverage.

“The use of telehealth services during this crisis has demonstrated the critical role technology can play in improving health equity,” US Rep Michelle Sherrill (D-NJ) said in a press release announcing the new bill. “No one should have to go without care when a video or phone conversation with a health care provider could mean quicker, safer medical attention.”

The bill would enable Medicare coverage for those therapists, while also allowing the Health and Human Services Secretary to expand the list of eligible providers to include more specialists.

It has the support of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA), American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), eHealth Initiative and Foundation, Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) and Personal Connected Health Alliance (PCHA). 

“This legislation removes unnecessary statutory barriers that restrict patients’ access to care and empower patients and their providers to decide on the best care options,” ATA CEO Ann Mond Johnson said in the press release.

While the bill faces an uphill battle to approval on its own, telehealth advocates are hoping that several similar bills could be grouped together in a bipartisan package that would pass muster in both the House and Senate. There is also hope that some of these bills could be included in other legislation, such as an economic stimulus package.

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