Lawmakers Request Continued Telehealth Expansion for Medicare

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A letter signed by 45 members of Congress asked for continued federal funding for Medicare telehealth access as pending legislation aims to make it permanent. 

A bevy of lawmakers cosigned a letter addressed to Congressional leadership requesting the expansion of telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries in upcoming government funding legislation, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact care.

Among the bipartisan list of signatories are Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Lindsey Graham, R-SC, along with Reps. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.; Peter Welch, D-Vt; and David Schweikert, D-Ariz. 

“Telehealth has been a critical tool during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that patients continue to receive the health care they need while keeping health care providers and patients safe,” the letter reads. “An extension to maintain expanded coverage of Medicare telehealth services for a set period of time would provide much-needed certainty to health care providers and patients.”

Under the lawmakers’ request, the Medicare telehealth expansion would be added to legislation that is necessary to keep the government running after Feb. 18, when the latest continuing resolution expires.

The use of telehealth has grown since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to complicate in-person meetings and appointments. Despite the boom in virtual health care appointments, the letter notes that many health care providers have been reticent to invest in long-term telehealth benefits and coverage given the unexpected nature of the pandemic. 

Deploying more telehealth resources is also expensive, with funding coming from emergency declarations approved by the Department of Health and Human Services. For funding to continue, these declarations must be approved every three months. 

In addition to encouraging the renewal of the declaration, lawmakers advised to limit other bureaucratic barriers to telehealth access as officials work to collect data to better understand how Medicare telehealth options are being used nationwide. 

“It is crucial that an extension not include unnecessary statutory barriers in accessing telehealth services during this data collection and analysis period,” the letter said. 

Telehealth services were initially expanded during the onset of the pandemic in 2020 by the Trump Administration, which relaxed some provisions mandated in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA, primarily to expand telehealth benefits for Medicare beneficiaries regardless of their geographic location. 

Pending legislation would make these changes permanent as the pandemic shows little signs of abating. Sen. Schatz introduced the CONNECT for Health Act of 2021 in April of last year to make the Medicare access expansion permanent. The bill currently has 61 cosponsors and bipartisan support. He originally introduced a version of the bill in 2016, earning newfound momentum in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives simultaneously by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.