The CONNECT For Health Act has been filed again in both the Senate and House, and supporters say the groundswell for expanded telehealth coverage and services could finally give the bill the momentum it needs for passage.
A bill that aims to improve and expand Medicare coverage for telehealth is back for a fifth time before Congress.
The CONNECT for Health Act of 2023, filed this week by US Senators Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Mississippi), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), continues a lengthy campaign by telehealth advocates to address the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' restrictive rules around who can use telehealth and what services are reimbursable.
A companion bill has been introduced in the House by US Reps. Mike Thompson (D-California), Doris Matsui (D-California), David Schweikert (R-Arizona), and Bill Johnson (R-Ohio).
As proposed this year, the bill would:
- Eliminate geographic restrictions on telehealth use and expand the list of allowed "originating sites" to include the home and other sites;
- Allow federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics to provide telehealth services;
- Expand the list of eligible healthcare providers to use telehealth;
- Eliminate the in-person visit requirement for telemental health services;
- Allow for a waiver of telehealth restrictions during future public health emergencies; and
- Mandate studies on how telehealth is used, how it impacts quality of care, and how it can be improved to support patients and providers.
The bill, first introduced in 2016, has a long list of supporters—some 60 senators are supporting this latest version—but has been unable to cross the finish line. Several provisions of previous versions of the CONNECT for Health Act were signed into law through separate bills or adopted by CMS, including actions to improve telemental health and telestroke care and integrate telehealth in home dialysis programs.
Supporters say the rapid and successful use of telehealth during the pandemic should give this bill a better chance of success.
“The pandemic showed us just how valuable telehealth is to ensuring folks receive care, but telehealth’s use goes far beyond navigating public health emergencies,” Hyde-Smith said in a press release announcing the bill's reintroduction this week. “Mississippians and Americans face many obstacles accessing healthcare, whether it’s living in rural areas, old age, or mobility issues. This legislation would be key to providing them with the quality, affordable care they need and deserve. It’s time to get this done.”
“While telehealth use has skyrocketed these last few years, our laws have not kept up," added Schatz, a well-known telehealth advocate. "Telehealth is helping people in every part of the country get the care they need, and it’s here to stay. Our comprehensive bill makes it easier for more people to see their doctors no matter where they live.”
Many of the flexibilities sought in this bill are in place through the end of 2024, thanks to an omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in December. Supporters say these provisions need to be made permanent to that healthcare organizations can map out long-term telehealth strategies and programs and consumers can access them without fear that they would be eliminated in a few years.
Among the many organizations supporting the bill is the American Telemedicine Association.
“Since originally introduced in 2016, the CONNECT for Health Act has envisioned a world where Medicare beneficiaries have access to virtual care services where and when they need them," Kyle Zebley, the ATA's senior vice president of public policy and executive director of ATA Action, said in a press release. "Today, our esteemed policy champions in Congress reintroduced an updated version of the CONNECT Act, including new and revised provisions that will help more people access telehealth services.”
“The pandemic showed us that we need to use technology to deliver care when and where it is needed," added Rene Quashie, vice president of digital health for the Consumer Technology Association, the driving force behind the annual CES show in Las Vegas, in an e-mail to HealthLeaders. "Extending telehealth access for Medicare beneficiaries will help bridge gaps in distance, accessibility, and availability of crucial health services in communities across the nation. The CONNECT for Health Act is a step in the right direction to modernize our health care system, and CTA is proud to endorse it.”
Eric Wicklund is the associate content manager and senior editor for Innovation, Technology, and Pharma for HealthLeaders.
The CONNECT for Health Act, first introduced in 2016, aims to expand oportunities and coverage for telehealth through Medicare.
This is the fifth time the bill has appeared before Congress, and telehealth advocates say the lessons learned from the pandemic and broad support for telehealth expansion could compel the bill across the finish line this time.
The bill would eliminate geographic restrictions and in-person exam requirements, expand who can use telehealth, and require more studies on telehealth's value.