Alexander: Make Telehealth Changes Permanent

Posted on July 30, 2020

“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to one of the most dramatic developments in the delivery of medical services ever. Congress should learn from these four months of lessons, which will likely mean that hundreds of millions of physician-patient visits will be remote or online that were in-person before.” — Senator Lamar Alexander 

WASHINGTON, July 30, 2020 — Senate health committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today introduced the Telehealth Modernization Act — legislation that will help ensure Americans can continue to see their doctors from home by making permanent the most important temporary changes in federal telehealth policy.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to one of the most dramatic developments in the delivery of medical services ever,” Alexander said. “Congress should learn from these four months of lessons, which will likely mean that hundreds of millions of physician-patient visits will be remote or online that were in-person before.”

Alexander offered the following perspective on the recent explosion of telehealth services:

  • According to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Vanderbilt went from 10 telehealth visits a day before the pandemic to more than 2,000 telehealth visits a day.
  • Alexander said that the CEO of Ascension Saint Thomas Health—which has nine hospitals in Middle Tennessee and employs over 800 physicians—recently predicted that 15 to 20 percent of the system’s visits between patients and physicians will be conducted through telehealth in the future.

In 2016, there were almost 884 million visits nationwide between patients and physicians, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If that 15 to 20 percent holds true across the nation because of telehealth expansion during COVID-19 – it would produce a massive change in our health care system,” Alexander continued.  

Congress and the Administration have reacted to the pandemic by creating a regulatory environment that made the current telehealth boom possible by allowing: in-home virtual visits; telehealth for patients in rural areas; telehealth from physical therapists, speech language pathologists and other providers; telehealth for many more services including emergency department visits; allowing Medicare hospice and home dialysis patients to start their care with a virtual visit.

Alexander concluded saying there are three steps Congress should take now, as a part of the COVID-19 legislation to build on what we’ve learned:

Step 1—pass the COVID-19 HEALS Act, legislation that provides telehealth access to part-time and hourly employees; extends the administration’s telehealth flexibilities through the end of the Public Health Emergency or through 2021; allows Rural Health Clinics and Federally Qualified Health Centers to continue to provide telehealth to Medicare beneficiaries for 5 years beyond the public health emergency.

Step 2—pass the CONNECT for Health Act, legislation that explores ways to expand telehealth services and begins to permanently remove some of the restrictions on where a patient needs to be for telehealth access. The bill is already supported by a broad coalition of 38 Senators.

Step 3—pass the Telehealth Modernization Act, which goes further than either of the first two steps and would make permanent in-home visits and rural telehealth access. The bill also gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services authority to make permanent other changes that the Administration has made over the last few months.

The Telehealth Modernization Act makes permanent two changes:

  1. Ensures that patients can access telehealth anywhere by permanently removing Medicare’s so-called “geographic and originating site” restrictions, which required both that the patient live in a rural area and use telehealth at a doctor’s office or clinic.
  2. Protects access to telehealth for patients in rural areas.

And gives the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services new authorities to do these three things: 

  1. Help patients continue to access telehealth from physical therapists, speech language pathologists, and other health care providers.  
  2. Help give Medicare recipients many more telehealth services. 
  3. Help Medicare hospice and home dialysis patients begin receiving care through a telehealth appointment.

Read Chairman Alexander’s full prepared remarks on the Telehealth Modernization Act here.