House reps seek to permanently safeguard audio-only telehealth coverage

By | May 26, 2021

Reps. Jason Smith, R-Mo., and Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., introduced legislation this week to ensure Medicare enrollees have expanded access to telehealth.

HR 3447, or the “Permanency for Audio-Only Telehealth Act,” would allow for Medicare coverage of audio-only telehealth services after the COVID-19 public health emergency.  

“The COVID-19 pandemic required the U.S. healthcare system to innovate and embrace every viable method of healthcare delivery. For patients in rural areas back home in Missouri, none have been more beneficial than the expansion of audio-only telehealth,” said Smith in a statement. 

“This method of healthcare delivery should serve as a bridge to provide better care and remain a permanent option for patients who will not gain access to broadband and technology overnight,” he continued.  

WHY IT MATTERS  

As the legislators noted in a press release, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services allowed healthcare providers to offer audio-only telehealth under Medicare and Medicaid plans during the public health emergency.  

This has allowed rural patients and low-income people, as well as seniors and those with physical limitations, to continue accessing necessary care.  

However, those flexibilities will expire at the end of the public health emergency, noted legislators, presenting a clear need for long-term policy.  

In addition to covering audio-only telehealth, HR 3447 would remove geographic and originating site restrictions for Medicare beneficiaries to access audio-only telemedicine.  

“The pandemic has created challenges for everyone, but it’s also shown us that technology can provide safe and dependable communication between patients and their doctors,” said Gottheimer in a statement.  

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“Innovations including telehealth and audio-only capabilities will improve efficiency, reduce costs, and increase access to health care providers – especially for our seniors and our rural communities,” he added.   

THE LARGER TREND

Health equity advocates have repeatedly pointed to the need for audio-only telehealth coverage, given the lack of access to affordable and reliable broadband throughout much of the country.   

President Joe Biden’s administration has taken some steps to address that connectivity need. But in the meantime, other legislators have introduced similar bills that would focus on covering virtual care without a video component.  

Earlier this year, members of Congress put forth legislation that would allow providers to offer audio-only services to Medicare Advantage patients, garnering praise from America’s Health Insurance Plans.  

“The bipartisan legislation is another example of how the public and private sector can work together to improve healthcare affordability and access for all Americans,” AHIP wrote in a statement.  

ON THE RECORD  

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, audio-only visits have provided a lifeline to patients who are unable to attend visits in person or participate in telehealth visits due to lack of broadband access or necessary equipment to facilitate the visits,” said Andres M. Gilberg, senior vice president of government affairs for the Medical Group Management Association.   

“The need for these services will not disappear upon the conclusion of the COVID-19 public health emergency, but the ability to deliver them to Medicare beneficiaries will without congressional action,” Gilberg said.

“Patients should not be penalized for living far away from healthcare facilities or living in areas with inadequate Internet access,” he added.

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Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Email: kjercich@himss.org
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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