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The home health industry hasn’t given up on securing telehealth reimbursement during the public health emergency. Their tenacity is being rewarded with recent legislative movement on Capitol Hill.

A group of bipartisan Senators on Thursday introduced S. 1309, the new version of the Home Health Emergency Access to Telehealth (HEAT) Act under the current Congress. The HEAT Act was previously introduced in both the House and Senate last October.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has firmly demonstrated the value of telehealth as a tool in meeting the clinical needs of home health patients,” National Association for Home Care & Hospice President William A. Dombi told Home Health Care News. “However, with the absence of any reimbursement for telehealth, home health agencies have not had the ability to make full use of it.”

Progress on in-home telehealth reimbursement has been a top legislative priority for the Washington, D.C.-based NAHC since last fall.

The advocacy organization described the current lack of telehealth reimbursement in home health care as a “glaring shortcoming in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Similar to last year’s version, the new HEAT Act gives CMS the authority to issue a waiver that would allow for telehealth visits to count towards in-person visits as included on the plan of care only during a public health emergency. The COVID-19 public health emergency is expected to last throughout 2021, so such an action could be a huge difference-maker for home health agencies.

If enacted, the HEAT Act would help providers meet rising demand for home health services as a time when the supply of nurses and other in-home care professionals is at a premium. The bill’s potential passage would also allow agencies to conserve personal protective equipment (PPE) and minimize person-to-person contact during future outbreaks in any given area.

Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced the original HEAT Act in 2020. 

They teamed up again this year, with backing from Senators Roger Marshall (R-Ky.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

“The HEAT Act is a big step forward in modernizing the Medicare home health benefit,” Dombi said. “We thank the senators for their bipartisan sponsorship of the bill and look forward to an early passage.”

While the HEAT Act has overwhelming support in the home health industry, some skeptics have raised concerns about the overuse of virtual care when in-person visits are needed.

The new version of the legislation has a built-in mechanism to prevent that scenario, according to NAHC.

“During the drafting, concerns were raised of the need for patient protections to ensure for protection against fraudulent and improper behavior,” a NAHC analysis states. “To assuage these concerns, guardrails were added that would require for patient consent for telehealth services, as well as a requirement that telehealth visits can [account for] no more than half of all visits.”

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