A new bill asks Congress to make telehealth coverage expanded by the CARES Act permanent
A bill introduced in the House — called the Advancing Telehealth Beyond COVID-19 Act — would ensure that telehealth regulations implemented through the CARES Act in response to the pandemic remain permanent. If passed, the proposed legislation will allow the HHS to waive geographical limitations for Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth or remote patient monitoring services, as well as establish permanent telehealth coverage at Rural Health Clinics (RHC).
Despite a recent decline in telehealth utility, usage is still higher in the US than it was pre-pandemic — and we don't think this will deter lawmakers from implementing regulations that will guarantee increased telehealth access for Medicare patients. Researchers note that telehealth visits have started to decline since their initial peak in April — but usage levels still remain significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels, per the CommonWealth Fund.
In particular, we've seen seniors gravitate toward telehealth in response to the CMS' expanded coverage of the tech amid the pandemic: Seattle-based primary care telehealth provider 98point6 reports that it's seen a 66% increase in patients over the age of 50 since Q3 2019, for instance. And since some seniors are becoming more acclimated to telehealth, we think eliminating geographic restrictions to access should go a long way toward providing better care for Medicare beneficiaries — particularly those in rural areas who may lack access to adequate care services.
And given that the senior population has a higher prevalence of costly chronic conditions than the general population, ensuring that barriers to telehealth remain knocked down would allow for accessible and efficient preventative care that could help providers curb some of the associated costs of chronic disease care: The US spends $1.65 trillion annually on treatment for chronic illness.
For telehealth adoption to keep besting pre-pandemic levels, we think state governments will need to introduce legislation that addresses challenges like connectivity and physician reimbursements:
- While telehealth is a viable way to make care more accessible, providers have encountered an array of tech hurdles that may dissuade users from tapping virtual care for the long haul. For example, a slew of technical issues relating to bandwidth and lack of internet access have made it difficult for some patients to use virtual care. This sort of friction — which is occurring in what's likely a first-time encounter with telehealth for many patients — could steer users away from accessing telehealth again. We've seen some health systems try to resolve these issues by partnering with telecoms like Verizon to ensure better internet access for virtual visits. But in order for these tie-ups to work on a broader scale, we'll likely need to see US lawmakers push harder for regulations that guarantee broadband access, especially in places where the connectivity divide is more severe, like in the rural US.
- Muddy reimbursement policies could be holding providers back from taking the virtual leap — so, we think state governments will need to push for elevated telehealth reimbursements to keep virtual care on its upward trajectory. For example, there is no set standard for telehealth reimbursement across the board in the US, as this is state-dependent — and only 10 states have enforced laws that would permit providers to receive the same reimbursements rates for both virtual and in-person services. If reimbursements for virtual care remain lower than in-person care, we expect that providers — 71% of which are paid on a fee-for-service basis, per the most recent AMA data — would be more incentivized to see patients in-office, resulting in a decreased focus on telehealth. So, while the proposed bill would move the needle toward permanent telehealth coverage — lawmakers will need to continue advocating for equal provider reimbursements for both telehealth and in-person care to sustain long-term adoption of telehealth.
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