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Congress Set to See a Flurry of Telehealth Activity

One bill is introduced this past week, and another is on the way. It's all part of what the American Telemedicine Association calls 'skyrocketing' interest in the technology

By Eric Wicklund

- A Senate bill introduced this past week would spur additional Medicare coverage of telehealth in rural areas by allowing more telehealth projects at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation.

It’s one of two pieces of telemedicine legislation expected in Washington this month, and comes at a time when telemedicine “is skyrocketing,” according to American Telemedicine Association CEO Jonathan Linkous.

The Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act, sponsored by Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), would require the Health and Human Services Department to allow eligible hospitals to test new telehealth concepts at the CMMI. It would also compel the CMMI to separately evaluate new telehealth models on the basis of cost, effectiveness and improvement in quality of care without increasing the cost of delivery.

“People living in rural Colorado should have access to the same healthcare services as those living in urban areas,” Gardner said in remarks introducing the legislation. “Telemedicine has the power to increase access to specialized services in underserved communities, and potentially lower costs and improve patient outcomes.”

Gardner said his bill “would pave the way for Medicare to expand coverage to additional telehealth services, and potentially provide those living with life-threatening conditions in rural America with more opportunities and more options to receive the care they need. At the same time, this legislation would incentivize the industry to develop cutting-edge technology that could revolutionize healthcare delivery. As we work toward a healthcare system that lowers costs and increases choices for consumers, it is important that we advance commonsense legislation like the Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act to achieve those goals.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has let it be known he intends to submit a bill before the end of the year that would enable healthcare providers to use telemedicine technology in new, alternative payment programs overseen by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid – including telestroke programs covered by Medicaid Advantage.

During the ATA’s monthly online webinar this week, Linkous said Schatz’s bill “is imminent,” and said he and Gary Capistrant, the ATA’s senior director for public policy, recently talked to the senator about the pending legislation.

“He comes with a background (in telemedicine) and a clear understanding” of where the industry can go, Capistrant said.

Linkous and Capistrant said Schatz’s pending bill is riding the crest of a wave of telemedicine activity in Washington, where CMS is in the midst of finalizing new Medicare codes, next-generation accountable care organization and bundled payment programs are loosening their restrictions on rural and originating sites, and Congress is working on two separate pieces of legislation that would clarify or ease licensing restrictions for telemedicine.

Linkous also noted the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee (MedPAC) “is looking at telehealth.” MedPAC backing of telehealth legislation, he said, could spur the Congressional Budget Office to take up the concept as well – something the CBO hasn’t been asked to do in 15 years. That in turn could give Congress a better picture on just how the technology could affect the nation’s staggering healthcare budget.


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