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CONNECT Act Returns, Targeting Telehealth Barriers in Medicare

Six senators have reintroduced the CONNECT for Health Act of 2017, which seeks to remove barriers to telehealth and telemedicine expansion in Medicare by giving providers more freedom to use new digital health platforms.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- A long-anticipated bill to expand telemedicine and telehealth services in Medicare has made it to Capitol Hill, adding to the growing list of digital health legislation in the nation’s capital.

The Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2017 was reintroduced this week by the same six senators who had initially introduced the legislation in early 2016.  The bill aims to remove roadblocks to telemedicine expansion in Medicare by giving providers the freedom to experiment with telehealth in alternative payment models and incentive programs and expand remote patient monitoring programs for chronic care, remote and underserved populations.

“Telehealth is the future of healthcare.  It expands access to care, lowers costs and helps more people stay healthy,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the bill’s chief sponsor and a longtime champion of telehealth, said in a press release. “Our bipartisan bill will help change the way patients get the care they need, improving the healthcare system for both patients and healthcare providers.”

The 32-page bill has five primary goals. As proposed, it would

  1. Build on provisions in the recently-reintroduced Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act of 2017 to expand telehealth platforms in accountable care organizations and Medicare Advantage, as well as patient undergoing home dialysis and stroke treatment programs;
  2. Expand remote patient monitoring programs for people with chronic conditions;
  3. Expand telehealth and RPM programs at community health centers and rural clinics, as well as for Native American populations, and integrate the technology into bundled and global payment programs;
  4. Give the Health and Human Services Department the authority to lift restrictions on telehealth – including geographic limitations, originating site restrictions, reimbursement limitations and restrictions on the use of store-and-forward technology - when quality and cost-effectiveness criteria are met; and
  5. Expand the use of telemental health services.

“Greater use of technology to connect patients and doctors will benefit both with better outcomes, as well as more timely and efficient use of resources,” Sen Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a co-sponsor of the bill with Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), John Thune (R-S.D.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), said in the press release.

“We have the technology today to promote the delivery of high quality care in an efficient and cost-effective way around the country,” he added. “I’ve seen firsthand the positive value of telehealth and remote monitoring in Maryland that connects ICU patients with critical care staff based at larger medical centers.”

When the bill was introduced in February 2016, an independent cost analysis by Avalere and Third Way estimated it would save the government at least $1.8 billion over 10 years, offsetting projected costs of $1.1 billion. Those figures will now have to be matched against the Congressional Budget Office, which has traditionally cast a wary eye in scoring bills that seek to expand telemedicine.

As with last year’s bill, the CONNECT for Health Act has lined up more than 50 endorsements, including nods from the American Medical Association, American Telemedicine Association, Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), MGMA, AMGA, Personal Connected Health Alliance, National Coalition on Health Care and a wide array of vendors and health systems.

“This legislation would advance patient-centered care through strategic and validated telemedicine and remote-patient monitoring tools and modalities,” AMA President Andrew W. Gurman, MD, said in the press release. “Increasing Medicare coverage for these telemedicine services will help transform the next generation of health care delivery in ways that promote value and improved patient outcomes.”

“Medicare beneficiaries deserve access to telehealth services already available within almost every other health program including Medicaid, veterans’ health, private insurance plans and most recently TRICARE,” added ATA CEO Jonathan Linkous in the release. “This bill may be their best hope for this Congress,”

The bill joins a growing list of telemedicine-friendly legislation on Capitol Hill, including the CHRONIC Care Act of 2017, the Hallways to Health Act, the Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine (FAST) Act the Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act.

Telehealth and telemedicine also figured prominently in the massive 21st Century Cures Act, the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act and the National Defense Authorization Act, all passed by Congress and signed into law. 

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