Lawmakers Explore ‘More Permanent Direction’ for Telehealth Under Medicare

After the COVID-19 pandemic changed telehealth, expanding access to the digital health care under temporary emergency policies, two House members said that congressional efforts are trying to expand Medicare’s virtual flexibilities beyond temporary pandemic efforts at an Axios event on Wednesday.

According to CDC data from October, approximately 37% of adults in the U.S. used telemedicine in the past 12 months. 

“Unfortunately, it took a global pandemic for us to realize the larger benefits of telehealth and really introduce telehealth into traditional Medicare,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said.

Bipartisan Medicare telehealth legislation was part of the CARES Act. However, telehealth is currently tied to the public health emergency, with efforts to expand it beyond the pandemic still ongoing. 

“We’re looking at how to transition beyond that public health emergency, which I hope we will see come to an end early on in 2023, and with that a more permanent direction for telehealth,” McMorris Rodgers said.

“We want to delink the telehealth flexibilities from the COVID-19 public health emergency. We want to make sure that patients remain in control of their doctor visit decisions and that it’s the patient that is deciding whether or not to utilize telehealth services or if they prefer to see a provider in person,” McMorris Rodgers said. “We’re also having broader conversations about the guardrails on the program to make sure that we are cutting down on the potential waste, fraud and abuse, which we will see in any program, but we need to create a permanent structure around telehealth. Right now, we’re working more on a short term bridge policy, to give us some time to consider what those guardrails would be and where the maximum efficiencies will be.” 

She noted that telehealth visits have been “leveling out” since the initial spike caused by the pandemic, requiring lawmakers to evaluate how a permanent solution should look.

While House members have voted on a bill to expand telemedicine coverage under Medicare for two years, the Senate has not taken up this bill. Co-Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and member of the Congressional Telehealth Caucus Mike Thompson, D-Calif., also introduced a bill to expand it permanently. 

“It is a bipartisan issue and it’s an important issue,” Thompson said. “Congress is a strange place and there are any number of bills right now that you and I … would agree should be passed, but for a number of very complicated reasons, they’re lingering, this being one. Now, there was some rumor that the Senate was inclined to do it, but only wanted to do it for one year. And we’re waiting to see what the final package comes down to.”

However, Thompson is urging his congressional colleagues to extend the offerings for two years, if not permanently, as this Congress comes to an end. He added that, as this Congress is ending, everyone is pushing to squeeze priorities in, and he hopes the next Ways and Means Committee recognizes the importance of telehealth.

“I’m pushing hard for two years,” he said. “If you look back at 2019, there were about 800,000 people that were using telemedicine to get their healthcare. In 2020, that’s about 53 million people. This works and it works well…The two year House bill is the least that we can do.”