In a recent blog, we discussed the new CMS proposed rules intended to make permanent many of the telehealth flexibilities initiated in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Since that time, two additional and very significant pieces of telehealth legislation have been introduced. First, on July 16, 2020, a group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced the Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act to the U.S. House of Representatives. The very next day, July 17, Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) introduced the Equal Access to Care Act to the U.S. Senate.
While the use of telemedicine and telehealth saw an unprecedented spike in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some in the healthcare community have begun to fear that this acceleration will see a backpedal due to a return to the telehealth restrictions of the past. Some clinics, especially in rural areas (where profit margins are often extremely thin), have continued to delay making investments in telehealth even now because they simply cannot afford to do so until they are certain these new relaxed restrictions and policy changes will continue on after the pandemic is over.
If signed into law, these new pieces of legislation would ensure widespread use of telemedicine for the future and make it possible for patients to continue receiving virtual care while empowering providers to keep delivering telemedicine options. In this article, we will take a look at what is proposed in each bill and what it will mean for the future of telemedicine in the United States.
Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act
According to a recent press release, “This bipartisan bill will continue the expanded use of telehealth beyond the Coronavirus pandemic by eliminating restrictions on the use in Medicare, providing a bridge for patients currently using the practices because of the crisis, and requiring a study on the use of telehealth during COVID-19.” Since this is a rather broad description, let’s take a look at some of the specific things this piece of legislation will do:
- Eliminates most geographic and originating site restrictions on the use of telehealth for Medicare recipients
- Establishes a patient’s home as an eligible distant site, allowing all patients to receive telehealth care at home as well as making it possible for doctors to continue being reimbursed for such visits
- Authorizes CMS to continue telehealth reimbursements for an additional 90 days after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency
- Enables HHS to expand telehealth in Medicare for any and all future emergencies by making permanent the disaster waiver authority
- Requires a study be conducted on the use of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, including costs, uptake rates, measurable health outcomes and racial/geographic disparities
Equal Access to Care Act
Similar in intent to the abovementioned bill, the Equal Access to Care Act also seeks to expand telehealth. The method for doing so in this case, however, is mostly by way of deregulation. First and foremost, this bill (if voted into law) would remove restrictions on the use of telemedicine in interstate commerce for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency. This will be done by eliminating certain licensing requirements.
Currently, licensing laws require a telehealth provider to be licensed in the same state in which the patient lives or is a resident. This has long been seen as a hurdle to effective nationwide delivery of telehealth. If passed, the Equal Access to Care Act would make it possible for healthcare providers to offer virtual care services in other states where they are not licensed (as long as said providers are licensed to practice medicine in their home state, of course). When/If this bill is signed into law, it would also require existing regulations that are in conflict with it to be revised.
As regulations and new legislation continue to advance, telehealth will continue to become a more permanent fixture in the healthcare landscape. To learn more about how recent events have catapulted the industry into the Age of Telehealth, check out our new whitepaper.
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