A bill before Congress would, if passed, continue COVID-era Medicare telehealth waivers until the end of 2024, while also extending the CMS Acute Hospital Care at Home program for two years.
Congress is expected to pass an omnibus spending bill this week that would extend pandemic-era Medicare telehealth waivers until the end of 2024. The bill would also keep in place the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' (CMS) innovative Hospital at Home program, and continue several other programs aimed at boosting connected health access and coverage.
Among several organizations praising the news is the American Telemedicine Association, which had long warned that the elimination of these waivers and programs would seriously hinder telehealth and digital health adoption.
“The ATA and ATA Action never wavered from our appeal to Congress, to provide stability around the life-saving telehealth flexibilities that have become a relied upon and valued option for healthcare providers and patients," Kyle Zebley, senior vice president of public policy for the ATA and executive director of ATA Action, said in a press release. "Today, our Congressional telehealth champions on both sides of the aisle came through for the American people and for ATA and ATA Action members, by meeting our plea for more certainty around telehealth access for the next two years, while we continue to work with policymakers to make telehealth access a permanent part of our healthcare delivery for the future.”
"The inclusion of a two-year extension of Medicare telehealth and commercial market telehealth flexibilities will make a huge difference to so many Americans," The Alliance for Connected Care said in a separate press release. "The Alliance for Connected Care has been calling for predictability for patients and clinicians while continuing to work toward permanent telehealth authorization. This gives us both."
Generally, the bill, if passed, would:
- Remove geographic requirements and expand the list of originating sites for telehealth services;
- Expand the list of providers eligible to furnish telehealth services;
- Expand telehealth services for federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) and rural health clinics (RHCs);
- Delay in-person requirements under Medicare for mental health services furnished through telehealth and telecommunications technology;
- Permit audio-only telehealth services, such as phone calls;
- Allow the use of telehealth to conduct face-to-face encounters prior to recertification of eligibility for hospice care during the emergency period; and
- Mandate a study on telehealth and Medicare program integrity.
The inclusion of audio-only telehealth services is a nice surprise for telehealth advocates. Federal and state regulators have long mandated that telehealth services be audio-visual, and have severely restricted any use of the telephone or an audio-only telemedicine platform for care delivery. But during the pandemic the telephone became a popular tool in regions where access to either telemedicine equipment or reliable broadband is limited. CMS has indicated it will return to those restrictions after the PHE ends, saying the platform isn't reliable enough for care delivery.
Aside from the CMS telehealth waivers, which expanded access to and coverage for telehealth during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, the proposed omnibus appropriations bill would also extend by two years safe harbor provisions for telehealth referrals in high deductible health plans (HDHPs) and health savings accounts (HSAs).
The bill would also extend for two years the waiver for the CMS Acute Hospital Care at Home program, an innovative service launched by CMS that allows health systems to shift more care for acute patients from the hospital setting to the home, through a platform that includes remote patient monitoring, telehealth services and in-person care. More than 200 health systems have signed up to take part in the program, and many had said they would be forced to curtail, drastically change, or even cancel the program once CMS support for the program ends.
[See also: Healthcare Executives Plot a Long-Term Strategy for Hospital at Home Concept].
“We greatly appreciate Congress including extensions the High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) and Health Savings Account (HSA) telehealth tax provision, giving American workers continued access to needed telehealth coverage without first having to meet annual deductibles, including telemental health services," Zebley said in the ATA press release. "Further, the extension to the Acute Hospital Care at Home Program ensures continued access to this patient-centered care delivery model that is proving to effectively lower cost of care while improving patient health outcomes and satisfaction."
Not all the news was good, however. While the omnibus bill includes several measures aimed at addressing the nation's substance abuse epidemic, it does not include an extension for a waiver that currently allows healthcare providers to prescribe controlled substances via telehealth for substance abuse treatment.
Federal law bans are severely restricts prescriptions of controlled substances through telemedicine. Federal regulation is channeled primarily through the Ryan Haight Act, passed in 2008, which prohibits physicians from prescribing controlled substances electronically until they have conducted an in-person examination, or if they meet the federal definition of practicing telemedicine, which requires that the patient be treated by, and physically located in, a hospital or clinic which has a valid DEA registration; and the telemedicine practitioner is treating the patient in the usual course of professional practice.
The nation’s ongoing opioid abuse crisis is creating a groundswell of support for changes in federal law to make telemedicine and telehealth a more prominent feature in treatment. Congress has been considering bills that would, if passed, create a special registration through the US Drug Enforcement Agency to enable healthcare providers to prescribe controlled substances through telemedicine.
[See also: Study Validates Telehealth for Substance Abuse Treatment During Pandemic].
The bill does direct the DEA to implement that special registration process, but the DEA has been asked to start that process for several years and has yet to do so.
While the omnibus bill, if passed as expected, would extend all of these freedoms for another two years, the ATA and others are lobbying to make many of the provisions permanent, rather than just pushing the finish line farther down the road.
“The hard work continues, as we persist in pressing telehealth permanency and creating a lasting roadblock to the ‘telehealth cliff,’" Zebley said. "Additionally, we will continue to work with Congress and the Biden administration to make sure that a predictable and preventable public health crisis never occurs by giving needed certainty to the huge number of Americans relying on the clinically appropriate care achieved through the Ryan Haight in-person waiver.”
Eric Wicklund is the Innovation and Technology Editor for HealthLeaders.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services passed a series of waivers during the pandemic to expand access to and coverage of telehealth, with those waivers set to expire at the end of the Public Health Emergency.
CMS also used a waiver to expand the reach of its Acute Hospital Care at Home program, which enables health systems to care for acute patients at home through a combination of telehealth, remote patient monitoring and in-person home care.
An omnibus spending bill now before Congress would extend those freedoms and other telehealth-related services for another two years, regardless of the end of the PHE.