The pandemic pushed US lawmakers to provide provisions to expand medical coverage for telehealth in 2020, speeding up a process that would otherwise have taken years. Since then, there have been efforts to make the change permanent, through things like the Telehealth Expansion Act of 2021. But there is an interim period that could present some uncertainty over whether people can get crucial telehealth services while permanent legislation is drawn up. Today, a bipartisan group of 45 lawmakers, led by Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), said they're "calling for the extension of expanded coverage of telehealth services to be included in must-pass legislation in February."
The group published a letter addressing Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as their minority counterparts and notable signees include Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
The letter states "While Congress prepares to enact permanent telehealth legislation, we urge you to include an extension of the pandemic telehealth authorities in must-pass government funding legislation in February."
Currently, pandemic telehealth decision-makers have temporary authority, and that's tied to the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration. As stated in today's letter, the emergency declaration is renewed in three-month increments. "Without more definitive knowledge about the duration of the pandemic and Medicare’s long-term coverage of telehealth, many organizations have been hesitant to fully invest in telehealth."
In addition to providing more confidence to providers that investing in telehealth will be a sound long-term investment, adding an extension to telehealth coverage while making it permanent will also "reassure patients that their care will not end abruptly."
The lawmakers called for "An extension to maintain expanded coverage of Medicare telehealth services for a set period of time," which the letter said "would provide much-needed certainty to health care providers and patients." They believe an extension would also allow additional time for studies to be conducted on the impact of telehealth, which "could help inform Congress's next steps on permanent telehealth legislation and appropriate program integrity and beneficiary protections."
Therefore, the group is also asking to ensure that "an extension not include unnecessary statutory barriers in accessing telehealth services during this data collection and analysis period," which could prevent people from getting essential care.