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February 28, 2020

Growing group of lawmakers want telehealth in coronavirus response

CORONAVIRUS PRESENTS LEGISLATIVE OPPORTUNITY —The Alliance for Connected Care, the The American Telemedicine Association, the eHealth Initiative, and the Partnership for Artificial Intelligence, Automation and Robotics in Healthcare are all throwing their weight behind an effort to allow HHS Sec. Alex Azar to waive telehealth restrictions during national emergencies.

Coronavirus supplemental budget talks have presented a unique opportunity for these groups and sympathetic lawmakers to work in a telehealth provision. The measure would let Medicare pay for virtual visits during national emergencies, regardless of originating site or geographic location. Though Medicare Advantage plans have more leeway to cover these visits, fee-for-service Medicare generally restricts payment. The Alliance for Connected Care in a letter urged House and Senate leaders this week to include the provision— lifted from the bipartisan, bicameral CONNECT for Health Act — in the supplemental package.

The effort is garnering congressional support from CONNECT for Health Act co-sponsors, at least in the House. Rep. Bill Johnson plans to meet with Republican leaders to advocate for its inclusion. Rep. Peter Welch, Rep. David Schweikert, and Rep. Mike Thompson support that, spokespeople told us.

Telehealth “could be a life saver should the spread of the coronavirus become more serious and widespread” domestically, Thompson stated to POLITICO.

Expanding telehealth would “allow the majority of initial screenings to happen outside of the hospital,” and keep in-person care for patients in critical need, the Alliance for Connected Care wrote to lawmakers. Lower-risk patients can start their consultations virtually, executive director Krista Drobac said. The remote screening can help determine who does need to come in for a diagnostic test, and who likely does not have the virus and doesn’t need to come into a crowded medical facility — where coronavirus could be present.

… While there’s widespread support for the provision among telehealth companies, some want it to go further to eliminate reimbursement barriers. Telehealth firm Doctors On Demand, which has its own staff of physicians, said Congress should also consider waiving a lengthy enrollment process telehealth providers must undergo to get paid by Medicare. If “all you do is remove restrictions without addressing enrollment, you are going to significantly limit” telehealth companies’ ability to respond, said Ross Friedberg, the firm’s chief of legal affairs.

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