Congress Omnibus Bill Includes Extension of Medicare Telehealth Coverage

If enacted into law, the omnibus spending package will extend numerous telehealth waivers for Medicare beneficiaries at least five months after the public health crisis has ended.

 By Anuja Vaidya

March 10, 2022 – The new omnibus spending bill, introduced in the House of Representatives Wednesday, includes several provisions to extend telehealth flexibilities for Medicare patients.

The $1.5 trillion bill provides a short-term win for telehealth stakeholders. If it becomes law, several temporary telehealth waivers enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic for Medicare beneficiaries will be extended for at least five months after the public health emergency officially expires.

These include waivers that removed geographic requirements and expanded originating sites for telehealth services allowing Medicare beneficiaries to receive services from any location, including their homes, and expanded the list of providers who can offer telehealth services to include physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists.

The legislation would allow federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics to continue offering telehealth services, and it would waive the requirement that mental health patients meet a provider in-person before receiving care virtually.

Medicare would also continue to cover audio-only telehealth services per the bill.

In addition to extending telehealth flexibilities, the legislation would require the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission to conduct a study analyzing the utilization of telehealth services under the Medicare program, telehealth expenditures, and the effects of expanded telehealth coverage on access to care among Medicare beneficiaries.

Further, beginning July 1, the Department of Health and Human Services secretary will be required to post data on telemedicine service claims to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website every quarter, the legislation states.

Congress has until Friday to pass the omnibus spending bill to prevent a government shutdown, CBS News reported.

Telehealth stakeholders applauded the telehealth provisions included in the bill.

“We commend legislators for including critical telehealth extensions in this must-pass legislation, ensuring that patients do not fall off a ‘telehealth cliff’ immediately after the COVID-19 public health emergency ends,” said Kyle Zebley, vice president of public policy at the American Telemedicine Association and executive director of its advocacy arm, ATA Action, in a news release. “We look forward to this bill’s expedient passage into law.”

But several stakeholders, including the American Telemedicine Association, have also been urging Congress to make telehealth flexibilities permanent regardless of the status of the pandemic. On Tuesday, 72 organizations sent a letter to government agencies urging them to solidify continued access to controlled substances via telehealth by not requiring initial in-person visits.

Amid regulatory flexibilities, telehealth use among Medicare patients skyrocketed, increasing 63-fold from approximately 840,000 virtual visits in 2019 to nearly 52.7 million in 2020, according to federal data.

In particular, audio-only visits experienced a boost, with the use of phone-based telehealth growing from a quarter of all telehealth services in 2019 to one-third in 2020.