Capitol Correspondence - 06.23.20

Senate Panel Considers Permanent Telehealth Changes

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Reflecting a broader trend towards virtual health consultations, the Senate is looking to make permanent certain Medicare changes caused by COVID-19 which would make telehealth easier to access. We are sharing this reporting by Politico Pro because of the potential precedent this could set for Medicaid programs, which have also seen increased use of telehealth tools during the pandemic.

“The chairman of the Senate health panel on Wednesday called on Medicare to permanently lift restrictions that typically limit coverage of telehealth to rural areas, while committee members said they would push for other changes in upcoming coronavirus relief bills.

But Senate HELP Committee members during the first congressional hearing on telehealth’s pandemic-related boom indicated they’re still in the early stages of understanding the implications from the rapid expansion in virtual care.

Impact: Chairman Lamar Alexander’s statement was the strongest indication yet that Congress is preparing to make permanent Medicare policies issued by the Trump administration when the country began shutting down over the coronavirus. Other lawmakers have suggested Medicare keep at least some telehealth provisions in place while they figure out a long-term overhaul.

Telehealth leaders testifying at Wednesday’s hearing gave their support for making both of Alexander’s specific policy recommendations — allowing Medicare to pay for telehealth visits for non-rural patients and expanding the number and range of services the seniors health care program will pay for. Alexander has recommended making changes before the end of the year so new telehealth patients aren’t suddenly cut off from their providers.

“Even with an event as significant as Covid-19, memories fade and attention moves quickly to the next crisis, so it is important for Congress to act on legislation this year,” said Alexander in his prepared remarks.

What’s next: The health committee is still investigating which of the 30-plus temporary telehealth changes — from paying for provider phone calls with patients to easing of privacy standards — should be made permanent. They questioned industry witnesses on the impact of virtual care on costs, as well as potential privacy or fraud risks, but the witnesses stressed that it’s too early to make much sense of the data.”