ACP Advocating for Passage of Legislation to Extend Pandemic-Era Telehealth Flexibilities

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Legislation currently being considered would remove geographic restrictions and expand originating sites for telehealth services for another two years

June 7, 2024 (ACP) -- As Congress considers whether to extend the COVID-19 pandemic telehealth flexibilities set to expire at the end of the year, the American College of Physicians is pushing policymakers to take a stand for patient care.

"ACP believes telehealth has been a lifeline for our physicians and their patients throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, facilitating care continuity while reducing exposure risks," said

George Lyons, Esq., ACP director of legislative affairs. "The expanded role of telehealth has become an important method of health-care delivery that can enhance patient-physician collaborations, improve health outcomes, increase access to care and members of a patient's health care team, and reduce medical costs."

ACP has submitted letters to the House and Senate, taken grassroots action and met with congressional staff in support of telehealth legislation.

As Lyons explained, telehealth allows patients to access the care they need when they need it, especially those who cannot easily get to clinics. In addition, "seniors have the convenience of seeing their doctor from the comfort of their own homes, and families with children have flexibility to work around their busy lives," he said. "Extending the current flexibilities for at least an additional two years gives clinicians and patients the freedom to choose the most appropriate modality of care while giving regulators additional time to collect data and develop evidence-based permanent telehealth policies that protect patient safety and the patient-physician relationship."

ACP supports the Preserving Telehealth, Hospital and Ambulance Access Act, which would remove geographic restrictions and expand originating sites for telehealth services through Dec. 31, 2026. The extension applies to federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics and would preserve Medicare patient access to vital telehealth for two additional years and hospital-at-home services for five years.

In addition, the legislation would preserve essential Medicare programs that sustain rural and low-volume hospitals and preserve Medicare add-on payments for urban, rural and super-rural areas to maintain access to crucial emergency ambulance services expiring in 2024.

Another bill, the CONNECT for Health Act, also supported by ACP would permanently remove all geographic restrictions on telehealth services and expand originating sites to include the home and other sites. It would also permanently allow health centers and rural health clinics to provide telehealth services and allow more eligible health care professionals to utilize telehealth services.

In addition, it would remove unnecessary in-person visit requirements for behavioral health services and allow for the waiver of telehealth restrictions during public health emergencies.

ACP also supports the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act (Rural Telehealth Act) and the Telehealth Modernization Act of 2024 (Modernization Act).

"The Rural Telehealth Act will expand access to health care and save patients time and money by making permanent Medicare coverage of telehealth services that was allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic," Lyons said. "These changes would include allowing patients to be treated at home, allowing rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers to provide telehealth services and expanding coverage of audio-only services for certain conditions."

For its part, the Modernization Act "would help ensure that seniors and rural patients who may not have internet connectivity receive the care they need through audio-only telehealth services, in addition to allowing health centers and rural health clinics to provide telehealth services," he explained.

According to Lyons, it is likely that a two-year extension bill will pass in Congress because it has bipartisan support and has attracted considerable interest in the Senate.

"The fact that the popular telehealth extensions end on Dec. 31 is an incentive for Congress to act," he said. "However, a bill extending the telehealth flexibilities permanently is probably not in the cards because of cost. Congress may want more time for data collection and assessment before making a permanent extension."

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Back to the June 7, 2024 issue of ACP Advocate