Lawmakers Push to Make Telehealth Options Permanent

Ju Jae-young/Shutterstock.com

Early data shows patients quickly embraced telemedicine options agencies expanded during the coronavirus pandemic. 

As federal agencies have made a quick pivot to virtual options in order to provide health care and medical attention online during the COVID-19 crisis, more lawmakers are calling to maintain expanded access to telemedicine—even in a post-pandemic world.  

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a statement that telemedicine options that have made care possible during the pandemic should be permanent changes to the health care system after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released new data Wednesday on the use of virtual medical services.

“Telehealth is popular and bipartisan because it reduces the cost of health care and improves quality and availability,”  Schatz said in a statement Thursday. “The skyrocketing use of telehealth during the pandemic shows that we cannot and should not go back to the Stone Ages of telehealth coverage.” 

Several provisions in the CARES Act helped strengthen telemedicine access by relaxing rules and providing funding. It’s these provisions Schatz wants entrenched in standard operating procedures post-pandemic. 

The data from CMS shows a dramatic increase in the use of telemedicine services. Before the pandemic, according to the report, around 13,000 Medicare beneficiaries received telemedicine in a week. During the last week in April, that number was closer to 1.7 million. 

Nearly 5.8 million CMS beneficiaries have had a typical office visit online since the coronavirus pandemic began. Telehealth has been particularly popular for mental health appointments, according to the report, with 60% of psychiatrist and psychologist visits taking place virtually.

The CMS data tracks with what other agencies have recorded as well. The Veterans Affairs Department reported encouraging telehealth numbers back in April. The department touted a 70% increase in mental health appointments taking place using VA Video Connect, which facilitates remote face-to-face interactions. 

In testimony to the House Budget Committee Wednesday, Dr. Robert Wah, former associate chief information officer for the Military Health System, listed telemedicine as a top area in which the federal government should invest.

“COVID-19 has highlighted the value of virtual, remote health care as effective, efficient, and well accepted,” Wah said. 

On July 2, a bipartisan group of 38 senators sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and CMS Administrator Seema Verma requesting a written plan, including a timeline, outlining permanent changes to Medicare telehealth rules. The letter called rule changes that allowed for the increased use of telehealth options a “lifeline” for patients and care providers. 

“As you stated, it is hard to imagine rolling back these changes,” the letter reads. “However, we are hearing from patients and providers who are concerned about when Medicare’s temporary changes to telehealth rules will be rolled back and whether they will receive any advance notice.” 

Though Schatz’s name was not on the July 2 letter, the senator has been a telemedicine advocate since before the pandemic. Along with Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss, Ben Cardin, D-Md., John Thune, R-S.D., Mark Warner, D-Va. and Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss, Schatz introduced a bill in October 2019 that would expand Medicare’s telehealth services.