Rounds Joins Bipartisan Group of Senators in Calling for Permanent Expansion of Telehealth Following COVID-19 Pandemic
WASHINGTON –U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) joined a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), in calling for the expansion of access to telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic to be made permanent. Provisions from the CONNECT for Health Act that have allowed Medicare beneficiaries in all areas of the country, and in their homes, to utilize telehealth services, as well as more types of health care providers to provide telehealth, were included in previous COVID-19 legislation. However, these provisions will expire following the pandemic unless congressional leaders act now to make those measures permanent.
“Americans have benefited significantly from this expansion of telehealth and have come to rely on its availability,” the senators wrote. “Congress should expand access to telehealth services on a permanent basis so that telehealth remains an option for all Medicare beneficiaries both now and after the pandemic. Doing so would assure patients that their care will not be interrupted when the pandemic ends. It would also provide certainty to health care providers that the costs to prepare for and use telehealth would be a sound long-term investment.”
In their letter, the senators highlight the growing use and benefits of telehealth during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as patients seek to avoid traveling to hospitals and other providers and instead receive care at home. New data shows that the number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services has been 117 times higher in just a month and a half during the pandemic.
The bipartisan and bicameral Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act was first introduced in 2016. The bill, which is cosponsored by 36 senators including Rounds, is considered the most comprehensive telehealth legislation in Congress.
In addition to Rounds, Schatz and Wicker, the letter was also signed by U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Angus King (I-Maine), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Chris Coons (D-Conn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).
The full text of the letter is below:
Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:
As you continue your work on critical legislation to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, we write to ask that you make permanent the provisions from our bipartisan CONNECT for Health Act that were included in previous COVID-19 legislation. These provisions have resulted in an important expansion of access to telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries during the pandemic.
We have long advocated for increasing access to telehealth because of its potential to expand access to health care, reduce costs, and improve health outcomes. Telehealth has proven to be pivotal for many patients during the current pandemic, ensuring they receive the care they need while reducing the risk of infection and the further spread of COVID-19. We have all heard from our constituents about how effective and convenient it is. Expanded Medicare coverage of telehealth services on a permanent basis—where clinically appropriate and with appropriate guardrails and beneficiary protections in place—would ensure that telehealth continues to be an option for all Medicare beneficiaries after the pandemic ends.
As you know, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020 and the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act included provisions from the CONNECT for Health Act to increase access to telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, these laws provide the Secretary of Health and Human Services the authority to waive telehealth requirements under Section 1834(m) of the Social Security Act, allow Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and Rural Health Clinics (RHCs) to provide distant site telehealth services, and allow for the use of telehealth to conduct the face-to-face visit required to recertify a patient’s eligibility for hospice care.
Because of these new authorities provided by Congress, Medicare has expanded coverage of telehealth services for the duration of the pandemic to include all areas of the country—as well as allowing a patient’s home to serve as an originating site for telehealth. In addition, more types of health care providers—including FQHCs and RHCs that provide primary care in rural and underserved areas—are able to furnish and bill Medicare for telehealth services. These changes have already contributed to a dramatic increase in the use of telehealth services in Medicare. Available data show that the number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services during the pandemic increased 11,718 percent in just a month and a half.
Americans have benefited significantly from this expansion of telehealth and have come to rely on its availability. Congress should expand access to telehealth services on a permanent basis so that telehealth remains an option for all Medicare beneficiaries both now and after the pandemic. Doing so would assure patients that their care will not be interrupted when the pandemic ends. It would also provide certainty to health care providers that the costs to prepare for and use telehealth would be a sound long-term investment.
In addition, given the recent flexibilities provided by both Congress and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the increased use of telehealth during the pandemic, we believe now is an important time to measure the impact of telehealth on Medicare. Specifically, the federal government should collect and analyze data on the impact of telehealth on utilization, quality, health outcomes, and spending during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is currently a scarcity of data available regarding the impact of telehealth on the Medicare program. This data would assist Congress in crafting additional policies to improve health outcomes and use resources more effectively.
Thank you for your continued leadership during the present crisis. We look forward to continuing to work together to increase access to telehealth.