The changes to telehealth utilization and payment reform brought on as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic appear set for permanency as House Telehealth Caucus leaders introduced legislation on July 16 that would allow access to such services for Medicare patients.

The bipartisan bill, the Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act, would expand telehealth use by eliminating restrictions on its use in Medicare, which have been a thorn in the side of the technology’s advancement for decades.

Those patients enrolled in certain Medicare plans could benefit immediately because of the change in federal payment for services provided through the service, which likely would lead to private payers for individuals covered under private and employer-sponsored plans.

The passage of such a bill would be monumental for the telehealth movement. Bill co-sponsor Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said in a statement that it would provide a bridge for patients currently using the practices because of the coronavirus crisis and require a study on the use of telehealth during COVID-19.

Thompson, who is the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Telehealth Caucus, said the legislation would expand the use of telehealth for seniors and those on Medicare. "We know telehealth can be an essential bridge in delivering care, particularly during a crisis and today we are working to ensure telehealth continues in a post-Coronavirus world," he said.

The bill also was introduced by caucus co-chairs Reps. Peter Welch, D-Vt.; Bill Johnson, R-Ohio; and David Schweikert, R-Ariz., and caucus member Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.

The bill essentially authorizes the Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive or modify application of Medicare requirements with respect to telehealth services during any emergency period, and for other purposes. It also provides regulatory flexibilities that provider groups have long sought, including removing geographic restrictions on where a patient must be located to utilize telehealth services and enabling telehealth services provided to patients in their homes.

Additionally, the bill allows for federally qualified health centers and rural health centers to provide telehealth services and makes permanent the temporary waiver authority for the HHS secretary for future emergency periods and the 90 days after the rescinding of a public health emergency period.

Healthcare groups overwhelmingly cheered the legislative efforts to make telehealth a routine part of healthcare delivery.“HIMSS and PCHAlliance applaud the introduction of the telehealth bill sponsored by Representative Thompson and members of the House Telehealth Caucus, and call upon Congress to take swift action and make permanent the flexibilities that have supported the use of evidence-based connected care technologies to improve healthcare quality, access and value for all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Hal Wolf, president and CEO of HIMSS, in a statement.

This legislation addresses many of the priorities HIMSS and more than 300 leading healthcare organizations identified for congressional leaders to make telehealth flexibilities created during the COVID-19 pandemic permanent.

“This unprecedented pandemic has proven that telehealth not only works, but that it’s essential,” said Welch in a statement. “These practical telehealth provisions have been successfully implemented and should be continued to ensure that everyone has access to quality healthcare no matter where they live or how mobile they are. This is a commonsense step to make sure our policies keep pace with our technology.”

“Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, there was still some question as to whether telehealth could be an effective alternative to going to the doctor’s office. The answer is now clear: unequivocally, yes,” said Johnson. “This bipartisan legislation will enable Medicare beneficiaries to continue using telehealth services when the current emergency declaration ends, and ensures that the enormous resources invested in making this technology work are not wasted. It’s time to expand high-quality telehealth services to all Americans, not roll back the progress we’ve made.”

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has allowed our nation’s healthcare system to continue to effectively deliver needed care virtually, ensuring patients can safely access care when and where they need it. As the only organization exclusively dedicated to advancing telehealth, the ATA commends the House Telehealth Caucus for introducing this essential but commonsense legislation to ensure Medicare patients continue to have the choice to access telehealth after the current public health emergency,” said Ann Mond Johnson, CEO, of the American Telemedicine Association.