Many Groups Call on Congress to Expand Telehealth Flexibilities

More than 400 advocacy groups are calling for Congress to act quickly to permanently expand flexibilities for telehealth that could go away after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency expected to run through 2021. The 430 groups sent a letter to congressional leadership underscoring the urgency for action now amid concerns from providers that expanded telehealth access could expire abruptly after the emergency ends.

Letter to Congress

The letter thanks Congressional leadership for expanding telehealth during the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE). Flexibilities were enabled under the CARES Act and allowed clinicians to provide more telehealth services. However, as the letter points out, “this progress is in jeopardy.”

The letter continues: “Many of the telehealth flexibilities are temporary and limited to the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency. Without action from Congress, Medicare beneficiaries will abruptly lose access to nearly all recently expanded coverage of telehealth when the COVID-19 PHE ends. This would have a chilling effect on access to care across the entire U.S. health care system, including on patients that have established relationships with providers virtually, with potentially dire consequences for their health.”

At the onset of the pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) removed several barriers to telehealth reimbursement under Medicare. The move helped fuel an explosion in telehealth use among providers as patients were afraid to get care for fear of contracting COVID-19. Some of the initial barriers that were lifted include a requirement for an in-person visit from the patient before going through telehealth. Other restrictions included a requirement that a provider needs to be in the same geographic area as the patient.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation to remove barriers such as the originating site requirement. But it remains unclear when Congress could act on the issue, such as whether the fix is included in a major infrastructure push or during an end-of-year spending package. Advocates hope that any legislation approved by Congress gives regulatory flexibility to HHS and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The agencies, for example, should determine which types of providers should get reimbursement from Medicare for telehealth services.