mHealth Intelligence

Lawmakers Call on HHS to Collaborate on Telehealth Access Policies

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and Congressional branches are urging HHS to work with them to ensure that expanded access to telehealth is not curtailed.

By Anuja Vaidya

January 31, 2024 - A group of lawmakers from the United States House of Representatives and Senate have sent a letter urging the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to work with Congress to maintain expanded access to telehealth.

Last week, the group, led by US Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra encouraging the agency to make telehealth a priority in light of temporary pandemic-era regulatory flexibilities expiring at the end of the year.

“We stand ready to work with you to ensure Medicare beneficiaries maintain access to telehealth services,” the letter stated.

The letter also detailed actions Congress has taken to extend telehealth access beyond the public health emergency (PHE). For instance, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, which extended several Medicare telehealth flexibilities through December 31, 2024. The extended provisions included eliminating geographic restrictions on originating sites for telehealth services, allowing federally qualified health centers and rural health centers to continue receiving payment for telehealth services, lifting the initial in-person care requirements for those receiving telemental healthcare, and allowing for continued coverage of audio-only telehealth services.

“These short-term extensions have been important to allow continuity of care and provide time for experts to evaluate the benefits of expanded telehealth services,” the lawmakers wrote. “The data is clear: Permanent policy is necessary, such as the policies in our consensus bipartisan bill, the CONNECT for Health Act.”

Last year, 60 senators reintroduced the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act. The act was initially introduced in 2016, and lawmakers have since enacted various provisions of the act into law. The reintroduced bill includes several flexibilities enacted during the pandemic that have only been extended through the end of the year.

“Enacting permanent telehealth legislation will require collaboration between HHS and Congress in the year ahead,” the letter stated. “We urge you to communicate to Congress and the public the authorities, appropriations, resources, and other supports needed to achieve this goal. Ideal channels for these communications include the President’s Fiscal Year 2025 Budget, the Calendar Year (CY) 2025 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule, and upcoming testimonies before Congressional committees.”

Further, the lawmakers asked HHS to provide “timely technical assistance and data sharing” and to solicit information from stakeholders to address implementation questions related to the permanent telehealth policy.

“This is a pivotal year for telehealth policy, and it is critical that we enact long-term legislation in 2024,” the lawmakers wrote.

Joining Schatz in sending the letter are US Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Ben Cardin (D-MD), John Thune (R-SD), and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), and US Reps. Mike Thompson (D-CA), David Schweikert (R-AZ), Doris Matsui (D-CA), and Bill Johnson (R-OH).

The American Telemedicine Association (ATA), a prominent telehealth proponent, has dubbed 2024 the year of the telehealth “Super Bowl.”

“With Congress back in session, the clock officially starts counting down today,” said Kyle Zebley, senior vice president of public policy at the ATA and executive director of ATA Action, in a January 9, 2024, press release. “It’s time for the Administration and our Congressional leaders to take permanent action to ensure patients across the country have access to safe, affordable and effective healthcare where and when they need it and provide certainty to beneficiaries and our nation’s healthcare providers. That would be a win-win!”

Some lawmakers have already started making moves to solidify telehealth flexibilities. Last week, Cardin and Thune and two other senators reintroduced the Telemental Health Care Access Act. The legislation would remove the statutory requirement that Medicare beneficiaries be seen in person within six months before receiving mental healthcare services through telehealth.