Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, is leading a bipartisan group of 49 members of Congress urging Senate and House leadership to include in end-of-year legislation language to make permanent Medicare telehealth expansions that were enacted earlier this year.

“As we near the end of the year and the 116th Congress, we urge you to include provisions in end of the year legislation to make permanent expanded coverage of Medicare telehealth services,” the 49 lawmakers said in a Dec. 4 letter.

The Senate and House members said they seek “immediate action to permanently waive geographic restrictions for originating sites, authorize health centers in rural and underserved areas to provide telehealth, and allow beneficiaries to use telehealth in their homes would be key steps to ensure much-needed certainty about Medicare telehealth coverage for health care providers and to improve access to care for patients.”

Currently, telehealth expansion is tied to the emergency public health declarations being used to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, but those must be renewed every three months.

“We continue to hear from our constituents and health care providers that the uncertainty about the long-term future of Medicare telehealth coverage is a barrier to organizations investing fully in telehealth – even now during the pandemic,” said Sen. Schatz, who also authored the CONNECT bill that created some of the initial expansions.

“Ramping up telehealth requires significant costs,” he wrote. “Without more certainty about the future of Medicare coverage, many organizations are not investing in all of these areas to optimize the use and availability of telehealth.”

Telehealth has been an important tool to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rapid rise in use of the technology suggests it is here to stay. Around 13,000 fee-for-service Medicare beneficiaries were receiving telemedicine each week before the pandemic, but that number ballooned to 1.7 million by the end of April, according to a Health Affairs analysis. Healthcare officials have said the pandemic has pushed telehealth development years ahead of where it would be otherwise.

Sen. Schatz first advocated for permanent changes back in July, and while President Trump has since signed an executive order making permanent changes, no legislation for that purpose has been approved.

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Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.
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