A bipartisan group of 30 senators are calling on Senate leaders to permanently retain programs that expanded telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group, led by Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said Monday in a letter that certain provisions included in recent virus-related legislation that expanded telehealth offerings for Medicare beneficiaries were set to expire when the pandemic ends in the U.S.
“Congress should expand access to telehealth services on a permanent basis so that telehealth remains an option for all Medicare beneficiaries both now and after the pandemic,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
“Doing so would assure patients that their care will not be interrupted when the pandemic ends. It would also provide certainty to health care providers that the costs to prepare for and use telehealth would be a sound long-term investment,” the letter continued.
The provisions, which stemmed from the CONNECT for Health Act, also facilitated telehealth service expansion in rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers that operate in underserved areas.
The senators cited new data that indicate
d dramatic increase in telehealth service utilization. The number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services during the coronavirus increased by 11,718% in just a month and a half, according to the lawmakers.
“Americans have benefited significantly from this expansion of telehealth and have come to rely on its availability,” the senators wrote.
Due to the huge rise in telehealth usage, the letter suggested the government collect and analyze data on the “impact of telehealth on utilization, quality, health outcomes, and spending” amid the pandemic to fill the “scarcity of data” about the impact of telehealth on the medicare program. With the data, the group said, lawmakers would be better equipped to craft future health policies.
This comes after the federal government worked to quickly embrace telehealth amid the coronavirus pandemic. President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act in March, which allowed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to waive certain Medicare requirements to expand access to telehealth and reimburse providers for virtual office visits.
HHS further dropped requirements for telehealth consultations just days later, permitting providers to provide care in states where they didn’t have licenses and rehabilitation centers to accept patients without a minimum hospital stay.
The department also allowed 80 additional Medicare services to be facilitated via telehealth during the crisis and permitted hospital emergency departments to use telehealth to assess patient treatment.
By the end of March, the Federal Communications Commission began giving out an allocated $200 millionfrom the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to hospitals, clinics and local health agencies to support telehealth initiatives. As of early June, the commission has given out more than half of the funds.
The offices of Sens. Schumer, McConnell, Schatz and Wicker did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.