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Azar: 'I Am a Big Supporter of Telehealth'

News  |  By Steven Porter  
   February 15, 2018

The HHS secretary’s words of support coincide with a number of other promising signs for burgeoning acceptance and application of the technology.

During his third congressional hearing within 24 hours, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers Thursday he’s looking forward to clearing reimbursement obstacles that have impeded the growth of telemedicine.

Azar, who’s been on the job two weeks, fielded questions from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, covering a wide range of issues facing the massive department.

Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., asked specifically about how payments for telehealth services are handled currently and how they might be better handled in the future.

Related: Strong Growth Forecast for Telemedicine

“If the doctor is willing to conduct a telehealth consult, I believe they should not be prevented or discouraged from providing the service because of outdated reimbursement policies,” Griffith said, “and I would like to work with you and HHS to help find ways to alleviate reimbursement challenges that are in the way of telehealth exploding and bringing medicine to the nooks and crannies of every part of America.”

“What do we need to change to help you all allow reimbursement for telehealth services so that people can get services all over the country?” Griffith added.

In reply, Azar suggested that current policies could be too outdated to accommodate the latest technological innovations.

“I am a big supporter of telehealth and how we can harness that, especially for underserved areas like our rural communities,” Azar said. “I do suspect there’s significant statutory barriers around reimbursement there, given that most of our constructs were set up in the 1960s for our payment regimes.

Related: Telehealth Is More Disruptive Than We May Think

“So I would love to work with you on that as I go back and we plow through and identify those barriers to see where we might make changes,” he added, noting that a Medicare Advantage provision in the budget would add flexibility for telemedicine payments.

Under the new law, as far as Medicare Advantage is concerned, telehealth services will be classified as benefits provided to patients at in-person visits, rather than “additional telehealth benefits,” as HealthLeaders Media reported last week.

“I don’t think it’s a partisan issue,” Griffith told Azar. “I think you’d find support on both sides of the aisle to change laws that are keeping you all from doing things that we all want you to do … in relation to telehealth.”

Steven Porter is an associate content manager and Strategy editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

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