The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee held a hearing on March 2 highlighting how telehealth has helped expand access to care during the current pandemic and what steps can be taken to ensure that benefits to patients and providers can continue after the end of the public health emergency (PHE).
In the hearing, “The Future of Telehealth: How COVID-19 Is Changing the Delivery of Virtual Care,” subcommittee members and witnesses focused their comments on several issues, including permanently extending some of the current telehealth waivers that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued to allow flexibility to hospitals and other providers delivering care during the COVID-19 pandemic [see Washington Highlights, May 1, 2020], addressing state licensure issues to allow providers to treat patients remotely across state lines, and increasing access to broadband connectivity, especially for those in rural areas and underserved communities.
In her opening remarks, subcommittee Chair Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) highlighted the importance of telehealth and noted that it has been a longstanding and important bipartisan priority for many members on the subcommittee. In reference to the temporary Medicare waivers, she stated, “I think it’s time to make Medicare reimbursements for telehealth services permanent.” She added, “Telehealth can also address racial disparities and health outcomes.”
Subcommittee Ranking Member Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) also noted his support for providers who have turned to telehealth to provide services for their patients during the pandemic and for CMS for taking steps to make telehealth accessible during the PHE. He stated, “I’ve said before the ‘genie is out of the bottle’ concerning telehealth flexibilities and expansion, and I continue to believe this. We have seen good development and progress so far.” He added, “Additionally, in my district, broadband continues to be a limiting factor. … I am committed to working with my colleagues on ways to address infrastructure limitations for telehealth services.”
Prior to the hearing, the AAMC submitted a statement for the record urging Congress to “make legislative changes that will allow the current changes to be made permanent while ensuring that reimbursement remains at a level that will support the infrastructure needed to continue to provide telehealth services at a level far above that of the pre-pandemic world.” Specifically, the AAMC recommended that Congress:
- Remove patient location restrictions and rural site requirements.
- Ensure providers are paid the same amount for telehealth services as services delivered in-person.
- Allow patients to access telehealth services delivered across state lines during the COVID-19 PHE by passing the Temporary Reciprocity to Ensure Access to Treatment Act (TREAT, S. 168, H.R. 708) [see Washington Highlights, Feb. 5].
- Allow coverage and payment for audio-only services.
- Take steps to increase funding for broadband access and infrastructure development to enable expansion of telehealth services.
Co-sponsors of the TREAT Act, Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio), highlighted the benefits of the bill during the hearing and asked the witnesses if they believe it would help patients during the PHE.
Harvard Medical School Associate Professor of Health Care Policy Ateev Mehrotra, MD, MPH, and Stanford Health Care Chief of Staff Megan Mahoney, MD, expressed their support for the TREAT Act and noted the benefits to patients. Mehrotra stated, “I think there’s broad consensus from everyone here that we need to address licensure reform and how we facilitate interstate practice of medicine.” He added, “In terms of how we make that reform, I think the TREAT Act is great and I’m very supportive of creating a licensure reform so that there’s reciprocity across states.”