Widespread use of telehealth services proved their worth during the COVID-19 pandemic, and health experts and lawmakers are considering implementing telehealth provisions on a more permanent basis as they look beyond the pandemic, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said during a Dec. 14 Axios webinar.
Rep. McMorris Rodgers explained that the first step to expanding telehealth services beyond public health emergencies is to delink those services from the pandemic.
“We want to make sure that patients remain in control of their doctor visit decisions and that they decide whether or not to utilize telehealth services, or if they prefer to see a health care provider in person,” she said.
The move to more permanent telehealth services requires broader conversations about the necessary guardrails for the program to make sure that potential waste, fraud, and abuse are prevented. However, this will take time, Rep. McMorris Rodgers said.
“We need to create a permanent structure around telehealth, but right now we’re working on a shorter-term bridge policy to give us some time to consider what those guardrails would be and where the maximum efficiencies will be,” she said.
Organizations like the American Hospital Association have urged lawmakers in both chambers to make permanent Medicare telehealth flexibilities allowed during the public health emergency. Telehealth services have been around for decades, just in a more limited capacity with most being outside Medicare services.
“It took a global pandemic to realize the larger benefits of telehealth and to introduce telehealth into traditional Medicare,” Rep. McMorris Rodgers said. “Being able to connect electronically can be a game changer and make a difference in getting people to access care quicker and addressing those healthcare needs in a way that’s going to serve people better.”
In July 2022, the House voted 416-12 to pass the Advancing Telehealth Beyond COVID-19 Act, legislation that would continue Medicare patient access to telehealth services, including audio-only services, through 2024 after the COVID-19 public health emergency.
The bill also would delay implementation of certain in-person evaluation requirements for mental health telehealth services until January 1, 2025, or the first day after the end of the emergency period, whichever is later.
The bill still requires a full Senate vote before it can be signed into law. Rep. McMorris Rodgers hopes that the Senate will consider the measure during the remainder of its session before the new year.
“The House has done some important work on this. I’m going to be pushing to get as much of the House bill as possible into the end-of-year spending bill package if that should all come together,” said Rep. McMorris Rodgers. “I would keep encouraging the Senate to look at the House bill … and hopefully the Senate will see it as a measure that would make sense in the short term.”