January 29, 2021 – The telehealth bills are starting to pile up on Capitol Hill.
At least three more bills have been filed over the past two weeks, each seeking to expand connected health access and coverage either during or beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
The Advancing Connectivity During the Coronavirus to Ensure Support for Seniors (ACCESS) Act, filed in the House by Reps. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL) and Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and in the Senate by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Bob Casey (D-PA), targets telehealth expansion in nursing facilities, which have been hard hit by COVID-19.
The bill would set aside $50 million for the Health and Human Services Department’s Telehealth Resource Center to expand Medicare and Medicaid coverage of telehealth services in nursing facilities. It would also create a grant program for nursing homes to create virtual visit services during the pandemic and require the HHS Secretary to provide guidance on virtual care expansion.
“From the start of this pandemic, the physical distancing necessary for saving lives has made it almost impossible for nursing home residents to receive tele-health services or visit with their loved ones,” Schakowsky said in a press release. “We are introducing the bipartisan ACCESS Act to ensure that all nursing home residents are able to use telehealth services and to communicate through video with their families and loved ones.”
In addition, Reps. David Schweikert (R-AZ), Bobby Rush (D-LA) and Mike Kelly (R-PA) have reintroduced the Safe Testing at Residence Telehealth (START) Act of 2021, which would mandate Medicare coverage for virtual care COVID-19 tests approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. The tests would be conducted at home with a telehealth consult and would either confirm or discount a diagnosis of COVID-19 or a similar respiratory infection.
“The coronavirus pandemic has brought on unprecedented challenges for all Americans, particularly our vulnerable, senior populations who are most at risk for contracting COVID-19 and have continued to stay isolated from family and friends,” Schweikert – who recently joined his colleagues in the Senate Telehealth Caucus to re-introduce the Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act – said in a press release. “One area where we have seen incredibly positive changes has been for seniors utilizing telehealth and at-home care tools, with growing appreciation for the flexibility and comfort this care can provide. I am proud to re-introduce this legislation to continue our much-needed expansion of healthcare technology.”
The bill, which was introduced last year but – like so many others – died in committee, specifies that Medicare will reimburse providers for either ordering “a test … to an eligible telehealth individual an amount equal to the amount that such physician or practitioner would have been paid for a diagnostic laboratory test,” or furnishing “an assistive telehealth consultation to an eligible telehealth individual an amount equal to the amount that a physician or practitioner would have been paid for such telehealth service.”
Finally, there’s the Ensuring Telehealth Expansion Act, which was re-introduced by Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX) after failing to make it through last year’s Legislative session.
Williams’ bill targets several provisions of last year’s CARES Act, extend the following through the end of 2025:
It would also require the Government Accountability Office to report back to Congress three years after the bill’s passage, and again at five years after passage, on the successes and challenges associated with the expansion of connected health, particularly in rural areas.
“Throughout COVID-19, physicians and patients have greatly benefited from telehealth waivers under the CARES Act as they have largely had to adapt to screenings or treatment via technology,” Williams said in a recent press release. “By permanently extending these waivers, Texans in our rural communities will continue having direct access to these essential services.”
With the latest economic stimulus and pandemic relief bill and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ 2021 Physician Fee Schedule failing to meet many expectations for advancing telehealth adoption, lawmakers are rushing to file new bills or re-file recent bills in advance of the new Legislative session. Many are hoping that a new administration and Congress can make telehealth a priority this time around.