WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) joined a bipartisan and bicameral group of lawmakers in calling for the extension of expanded coverage of telehealth services to be included in must-pass legislation in February. Provisions from the CONNECT for Health Act, reintroduced by Sen. Warner in April 2021, were included in previous COVID-19 relief legislation to allow Medicare beneficiaries to utilize telehealth services and to expand the types of health care providers eligible to provide telehealth. However, these provisions will expire following the pandemic unless congressional leaders act to extend those measures or make them permanent.
“We strongly support permanently expanding Medicare coverage of telehealth and removing other barriers to the use of telehealth because of its ability to expand access to care, reduce costs, and improve health outcomes. While Congress prepares to enact permanent telehealth legislation, we urge you to include an extension of the pandemic telehealth authorities in must-pass government funding legislation in February,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
Sen. Warner was an original co-sponsor of the 2016 Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act and has been a longtime advocate for the expansion of telehealth in order to ease access to healthcare. In June 2020, Sen. Warner called for the permanent expansion of telehealth services in a letter to congressional leadership. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sen. Warner included a provision to expand telehealth services for substance abuse treatment in the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018. In 2003, then-Gov. Warner expanded Medicaid coverage for telemedicine statewide, including evaluation and management visits, a range of individual psychotherapies, the full range of consultations, and some clinical services, including in cardiology and obstetrics. Coverage was also expanded to include non-physician providers. Among other benefits, the telehealth expansion allowed individuals in medically underserved and remote areas of Virginia to access quality specialty care that isn’t always available at home.
In addition to Sen. Warner, the letter was also signed by U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Roger Wicker (R-MS), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Jon Tester (D-MT), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Angus King (I-ME), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY.), Tina Smith (D-MN), Rob Portman (R-OH), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), John Boozman (R-AR), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Roger Marshall (R-KS), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Martin Heinrich (D-NM) Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and U.S. Representatives Mike Thompson (D-CA), David Schweikert (R-AZ), Bill Johnson (R-OH), Doris Matsui (D-CA), Peter Welch (D-VT), James Langevin (D-RI), Cheri Bustos (D-IL), Don Bacon (R-NE), and Michael Guest (R-MS).
A full copy of the letter is available here and below.
Dear Majority Leader Schumer, Minority Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, and Minority Leader McCarthy:
Telehealth has been a critical tool during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that patients continue to receive the health care they need while keeping health care providers and patients safe. Congress recognized the importance of telehealth and included provisions in COVID-19 legislation to increase access to telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries during the pandemic. We strongly support permanently expanding Medicare coverage of telehealth and removing other barriers to the use of telehealth because of its ability to expand access to care, reduce costs, and improve health outcomes. While Congress prepares to enact permanent telehealth legislation, we urge you to include an extension of the pandemic telehealth authorities in must-pass government funding legislation in February.
An extension to maintain expanded coverage of Medicare telehealth services for a set period of time would provide much-needed certainty to health care providers and patients. Ramping up telehealth requires significant costs and resources from health care providers. However, the pandemic telehealth authorities are temporary and tied to the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration, which is renewed in three-month increments. Without more definitive knowledge about the duration of the pandemic and Medicare’s long-term coverage of telehealth, many organizations have been hesitant to fully invest in telehealth. An extension of the telehealth authorities would provide assurance that the investments will be sustainable over the long term. It would also reassure patients that their care will not end abruptly.
In addition, since the use of telehealth in Medicare was very low before the pandemic, an extension would provide additional time to collect and analyze data on the impacts of telehealth. This data could help inform Congress’s next steps on permanent telehealth legislation and appropriate program integrity and beneficiary protections. In the meantime, it is crucial that an extension not include unnecessary statutory barriers in accessing telehealth services during this data collection and analysis period.
Telehealth has become an essential part of the health care system. The permanent telehealth reforms included in the CONNECT for Health Act, which has bipartisan support from over 170 members of Congress, as well as other telehealth bills, are imperative to increase access to care, reduce costs, and improve health outcomes. In February, Congress should extend the authorities that have expanded coverage of telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to maintain access to telehealth and provide necessary certainty for Medicare telehealth coverage.
We appreciate your collaboration on this important issue.