Telehealth Expansion Gets Bipartisan Congressional Support

July 2014 has brought a lot of activity toward expanding telehealth services to improve access to health care for seniors and others and lower the costs of health care for federal health care programs. Members of both houses of Congress and both political parties have introduced bills that would require Medicare to expand telehealth services provided to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. Moreover, CMS’ 2015 Physician Fee Schedule Proposed rule includes a proposal to add annual wellness visits, psychotherapy services, and prolonged evaluation and management services to the Medicare telehealth benefit. In announcing its appreciation for the efforts of legislators to push for improvements in telemedicine coverage, the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) stated that the “bills are instrumental in demonstrating widespread congressional support.”

Telehealth Parity Act of 2014 

On July 31, 2014, House of Representatives members Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Gregg Harper (R-Mississippi), and Peter Welch (D-Vermont) introduced the Medicare Telehealth Parity Act of 2014 (HR 5380) (Discussion Draft) , which “creates a [three] phase approach over four years to expand coverage of telemedicine-provided services and removes arbitrary barriers that limit access to services for Medicare beneficiaries,” according to an ATA press release. Thompson explained that the bill puts telehealth services under Medicare on the path toward parity with in-person health care visits. The legislation has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Committee on Ways and Means.

The phase-in begins in rural areas and gradually removes geographic restrictions to patient care. The bill also provides for telehealth services furnished by diabetes educators as well as outpatient therapists, including speech language therapist, audiologists, respiratory therapists, and physical therapists; allows remote patient management services for chronic health conditions such as diabetes, congestive heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, including patient monitoring, patient training, clinical observation, assessment, treatment and other services; and expands home telehealth, hospice, and home dialysis.  The bill requires Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a study of the effectiveness of remote patient monitoring on decreasing hospital readmissions for the chronic conditions included in the bill and the savings to Medicare as well as the implications of greater use of patient monitoring with respect to payment and delivery system transformations. The bill is discussed in more detail in a post by Bryant Storm titled, “Bill Would Stretch Telemedicine to Physical Therapy, Bigger Populations.”

Telehealth Enhancement Act of 2014

The Telehealth Enhancement Act of 2014 (S. 2662), which was introduced by Senators Thad Cochran (R. Mississippi) and Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), would expand the use of telehealth technology to improve health care for seniors and other patients in underserved areas as well as help lower health care costs. The legislation would waive statutory Medicare restrictions on telehealth services to encourage greater use of telehealth technologies and would extend telehealth coverage to all critical access and sole-community hospitals regardless of metropolitan status. The legislation also covers home-based video services for hospice care, home dialysis, and homebound seniors. Medicare home health payments would be adjusted. In addition, the bill would allow states to modify Medicaid coverage to include telehealth services for women with high-risk pregnancies. The bill has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee. According to the ATA, the bill “includes several provisions that may see significant budget savings and build on recent payment innovations such as accountable care organizations and other incremental budget-sensitive proposals.”

This Senate bill is a companion to legislation introduced by Harper, Thompson, Welch, and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) last year, known as the Telehealth Enhancement Act of 2013 (HR3306). Many of the provisions of HR 3306 are reflected in S. 2662. The ATA Hub summarized the provisions of HR 3306, stating that such provisions include incentive for reducing hospital readmissions, advancing a health home approach as found in the Medicaid program, care coordination for chronic illness such as Parkinson’s, flexibility for accountable care organizations to offer telehealth services, expansion of geographic locations, coverage of home-based video services, and coverage of Medicaid telehealth services for high-risk pregnancies. HR 3306 is pending in the House Ways and Means Committee and House Energy and Compliance Commerce. According to Wicker, “Telehealth cuts down travel time and increases access to specialists for residents in many rural areas who do not live near these essential health care resources.”

CMS Proposed Rule

CMS proposed to add the following services to the list of services that can be furnished to Medicare beneficiaries under the telehealth benefit: annual wellness visits, including a personalized prevention plan of service, initial visit, and subsequent visit; psychotherapy services, including family psychotherapy with and without patient present; and prolonged evaluation and management services requiring direct patient contact beyond the usual service. CMS found that these services meet the criteria for being on the Medicare telehealth list and are sufficiently similar to psychiatric diagnostic procedures or office outpatient visits currently on the telehealth list to qualify for coverage.

Conclusion

“Telehealth  is one of the most promising aspects of the health care field,” according to Harper. The use of telehealth technology and services may be the answer for improving access to health for seniors and others in underserved areas and lowering health care costs; however, Wayne Caswell, member of ATA and Founder of Modern Health Talk, sees this as “a step in the right direction” but “just a baby step” and noted that he thinks “much more is needed.”  In an article, written in response to the introduction of the Telehealth Enhancement Act of 2013 bill, Caswell cautioned that the telehealth bills introduced in Congress may get resistance from states seeking to “preserve the status quo and the authority of state medical boards.” Other risks related to the expansion of telemedicine services such as privacy, confidentiality, credentialing, and failure of technology for health care providers are discussed in the post, “Growth of Telemediccine Services Brings the Need to Address Associated Risk.