Senators introduce bipartisan bill aimed at safeguarding rural telehealth access
U.S. senators this past week introduced another bill aimed at making telehealth flexibilities permanent under Medicare – including audio-only telehealth appointments.
The Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act is geared toward ensuring underserved community health providers are able to continue accessing virtual care beyond the end of the public health emergency.
“The COVID-19 pandemic reiterated the effective efficient access to care telehealth provides to patients, especially those in rural communities,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who introduced the bill.
“Even after the pandemic ends, our health care system should bolster telehealth services as a reliable option to serve patients help exphealth care options availability for rural America,” Moran continued.
WHY IT MATTERS
The bill – which was cosponsored by Senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. – contains several provisions that have garnered significant support over the past year.
The act would:
- Permanently waive the geographic restriction, allowing Medicare patients to be treated from their homes.
- Permanently allow rural health clinics Federally Qualified Health Centers to serve as distance sites for providing telehealth services.
- Lift the restrictions on “store forward” technologies for telehealth. Currently this is only allowed in Hawaii Alaska.
- Allow Critical Access Hospitals to directly bill for telehealth services.
Significantly, it would also allow payment parity for audio-only health services for clinically appropriate appointments – which many equity advocates have flagged as vital, especially for people who lack access to affordable broadbservices.
“The expansion of telehealth services during the pandemic, including especially audio-only telehealth, has allowed Granite Staters to access the care they need without traveling long distances risking their health, while also helping healthcare providers easily connect with patients earn additional income needed to keep their doors open – a win-win,” said Shaheen in a statement.
“I’m pleased to introduce this common-sense legislation with Senator Manchin to permanently expthe telehealth services ensure that Medicare beneficiaries in areas of New Hampshire that lack broadbcan continue to access audio-only forms of telehealth services,” Shaheen added.
As questions loom around the future of federal telehealth regulations, many states have taken the reins.
Most recently, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed HB2508A, which requires applicable health plans to reimburse providers at the same rate for a health service delivered via telemedicine as they would in person, among other provisions.
“This is the next big step in the healthcare industry, ensuring quality care for all patients during a pandemic far beyond,” said Torben Nielsen, CEO of ZoomCare, in a statement.
ZoomCare, a Portland-based chain of health clinics, had supported the legislation.
THE LARGER TREND
Telehealth advocates have pointed out that it will be up to Congress to ensure telehealth access is maintained after the public health emergency ends – to try avoid plunging off the so-called “telehealth cliff.”
For their part, federal legislators have introduced a number of bills that would do just that. Most notably, the CONNECT for Health Act, put forth in April of this year, contains many of the same provisions as the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act, has support from half the Senate.
Meanwhile, the Telehealth Modernization Act has also enjoyed bipartisan Senate support.
ON THE RECORD
“Even before the pandemic, access to telehealth was critical to helping Iowans in rural areas get the care they need,” said Ernst in a statement. “That’s why I prioritized working with Democrats Republicans to expaccess to these services during this difficult year.”
“Now that we’ve seen its success, there’s no reason we shouldn’t make these changes permanent to continue supporting both our rural patients hospitals,” Ernst added.