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A bipartisan group comprising half of U.S. senators has reintroduced the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2021.
The act would expand coverage of Medicare telehealth services and make some COVID-19 telehealth flexibilities permanent, among other provisions.
“The last year has shown us that telehealth works, it’s popular, and it’s here to stay,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in a statement.
“Our comprehensive bill makes it easier for more people to safely get the care they need no matter where they live,” added Schatz, who was among the six senators who led the bipartisan group of lawmakers in the bill’s reintroduction.
Access for Medicare beneficiaries
Questions about the future of telehealth regulations have endured ever since the federal government opted to relax some of them during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The telehealth cliff is looming, casting much uncertainty and concern for the health and safety of Medicare beneficiaries, and the sustainability of our already overburdened healthcare system,” said Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association.
“By ensuring Medicare beneficiaries do not lose access to telehealth after the COVID-19 public health emergency ends, the CONNECT Act would protect seniors from the telehealth cliff,” she said.
The CONNECT Act would aim to answer at least some of those questions, at least where Medicare is concerned. The 2021 version of the legislation would:
Permanently remove all geographic restrictions on telehealth services and expand originating sites to include the home and other sites
Allow health centers and rural health clinics to provide telehealth services
Provide the Secretary of Health and Human Services with the permanent authority to waive telehealth restrictions
Allow for the waiver of telehealth restrictions during public health emergencies
Require a study to learn more about how telehealth has been used during the current COVID-19 pandemic
“Telehealth is enabling more people to receive the care they need, leading to improved outcomes and lower costs,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi.
“This bipartisan legislation would build on the success of telehealth in states like Mississippi to eliminate existing barriers and expand access to lifesaving care for more Americans,” he added.
Reps. Mike Thompson, D-California; Peter Welch, D-Vermont; David Schweikert, R-Arizona; Bill Johnson, R-Ohio; and Doris Matsui, D-California have also introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
A “significant step” for coverage
Telehealth rates skyrocketed after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And although they’ve leveled off somewhat as patients have begun to feel safer returning to in-person care, one thing is clear: Virtual care is here to stay.
A recent HIMSS Market Intelligence survey found that nearly one in two respondents between the ages of 18 and 56 preferred seeing their primary care provider via video after the COVID-19 pandemic. (HIMSS is the parent company for Healthcare IT News.)
Those numbers were even higher when it came to mental health: More than half of people in all age groups said video was their preferred appointment type for behavioral health.
Advocates cheered the CONNECT for Health Act’s reintroduction, calling it a major move toward expansion of access to virtual services.
“We are pleased to support the CONNECT for Health Act as a significant step toward removing outdated barriers to Medicare’s coverage of live audio and video healthcare services for vulnerable populations,” said Connected Health Initiative Executive Director Morgan Reed in a statement.
“These forward-looking reforms would enable Medicare beneficiaries to meaningfully access virtual care and come very close to our recommendation to adopt ‘any site at which the patient is located’ as a statutory originating site,” Reed continued.
Reed argued that the current law exacerbates existing inequities.
“Telehealth services can help address inequities by providing a means to access care regardless of where the patient lives or is located when seeking healthcare services,” Reed said. “The current statute’s narrow allowance for telehealth coverage only for certain rural patients with access to a physician’s office arbitrarily deems those patients worthy of coverage while leaving urban and suburban populations uncovered.
“With smartphone ownership and use approximately the same at about 80 percent for Black, white, and Latinx populations, excluding all patients from coverage except those in a narrow set of locations exacerbates inequitable access to care,” he said.
“HIMSS is once again proud to support the CONNECT for Health Act, and we applaud the leaders of the Senate Telehealth Working Group and Congressional Telehealth Caucus for reintroducing this critical piece of legislation,” said Tom Leary, senior vice president of government relations at HIMSS, in a statement.
A years-long effort
This isn’t the first time a version of the CONNECT Act has been introduced in the Senate; Schatz and Wicker unveiled the initial legislation in 2016.
Although some of those original provisions have been enacted into law or adopted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services since then, others remain – namely, the broadly popular move to expand the definition of originating site.
“Over the past year, we have witnessed widespread adoption of telehealth that ensured equitable access to healthcare for all Americans and provided safe and high-quality care to patients whenever and wherever they needed it,” said Leary. “We now call on Congress to make permanent the flexibilities that have supported the use of evidence-based connected care to improve healthcare quality, access and value.”
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