GOP, Independent Senators Co-Sponsor Medicare Telehealth Access Bill

The bipartisan legislation would eliminate Medicare’s geographic and originating site restrictions and establish policies that ensure Medicare coverage for telehealth services.

January 28, 2022 – U.S. Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Angus King (I-ME) are co-sponsoring the Telehealth Modernization Act, which aims to solidify access to and coverage of telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress introduced temporary emergency waivers to ensure Medicare beneficiaries could access and receive coverage for virtual care services.

According to HHS, almost half (43.5 percent) of all Medicare fee-for-service (FFS) primary care visits were conducted via telehealth in April 2020. Usage remained high during the first year of the public health emergency. In fact, from January to December 2020, nearly 52.7 million Medicare FFS beneficiaries used telehealth, a 63-fold increase from the year prior.  

However, the emergency flexibilities are set to expire at the end of the public health emergency — which HHS recently renewed for an additional 90 days and through April 16, 2022 — if Congress does not take action.

“Telehealth services have been a lifeline to patients and providers during the pandemic, ensuring that individuals can continue to receive quality healthcare from the safety and convenience of their own homes,” Sens. Collins and King said in a joint statement. “This bipartisan bill would expand telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries, ensuring that seniors in Maine and across the country retain access to remote home health services during the COVID-19 emergency and future public health emergencies.”

The Telehealth Modernization Act seeks to make certain temporary policies permanent.

The bill would permanently eliminate Medicare’s geographic and originating site restriction. This restriction limits patients’ access to telehealth by requiring that Medicare beneficiaries live in rural areas and be present at a doctor’s office or other specified clinics in order to receive virtual healthcare services that are covered by their insurance.

The legislation would also ensure that individuals living in rural areas continue to have access to virtual care by requiring Medicare to provide coverage for telehealth services provided at federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics.

Additionally, the bipartisan bill would give the HHS secretary the power to solidify Medicare coverage for virtual physical therapy, speech language pathology, and additional specialty healthcare services. The HHS secretary would also have the authority to ensure continuity of virtual care and Medicare coverage for hospice and home dialysis patients.

The Telehealth Modernization Act was first introduced by former Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) in July 2020 but did not receive a vote from Congress. In February 2021, Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) re-introduced the bill.

Notable supporters of the legislation include the Alliance for Connected Care, American Medical Association, Connected Health Initiative, eHealth Initiative, and American Telemedicine Association.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, lawmakers have introduced a handful of bills to help preserve access to telehealth for individuals across the country.

The Cures 2.0 Bill and the Telehealth Extension Act both include policies that aim to expand telehealth access for Medicare beneficiaries by lifting geographic and originating site restrictions. In addition, the Cures 2.0 legislation proposed policies that would help integrate telehealth into Medicaid programs and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).