“While telehealth use has skyrocketed these last few years, our laws have not kept up. Telehealth is helping people in every part of the country get the care they need, and it’s here to stay.”
That statement from Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, perfectly sums up why one of the most important steps forward for patient care in recent years must be preserved. Sen. Schatz is among a bipartisan group of 60 senators supporting the CONNECT for Health Act of 2023 (S. 2016/H.R. 4189), legislation that will expand coverage of telehealth services through Medicare, make permanent COVID-19 telehealth flexibilities, improve health outcomes and make it easier for patients to connect with their doctors.
As the pandemic made clear, there is no doubt that the ability of patients — especially people living in rural or underserved areas — to consult and connect virtually with caregivers without the necessity of in-person visits has been a revolutionary development in health care delivery.
Behavioral health, for example, is one specialty area that has seen sustained growth in telehealth utilization. In fact, prior to the pandemic, telehealth visits accounted for less than 1% of behavioral health visits. During the pandemic, they peaked at about 40% of all behavioral health visits and have been sustained at around 36%.
The AHA recently wrote House and Senate leaders urging lawmakers to realize the full potential of telehealth services by passing the CONNECT Act to remove many of the barriers that currently limit access to care.
Specifically, we strongly support provisions in the legislation that would:
- Permanently remove the geographic restrictions that limit where patients can access telehealth services and add homes and other clinically appropriate sites as eligible originating site locations; or even better, eliminate originating site restrictions altogether.
- Stop requiring patients to receive an in-person evaluation six months before they can initiate behavioral telehealth treatment, and also eliminate the requirement for annual in-person visits thereafter.
- Allow rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers to serve as distant sites, so that these facilities may use the providers at their own sites to offer care to patients, ensuring patients remain connected to their primary providers.
- Allow critical access hospitals the same ability to offer and bill for telehealth services.
While the pandemic showed us just how valuable telehealth is to ensuring people have access to the care they need, its use goes far beyond navigating public health emergencies.
Making these important flexibilities permanent past their current expiration in 2025 would expand the promise and potential of telehealth to an even greater number of people and provide hospitals and health systems with effective tools to continue to advance health in a fast-changing health environment.
Hospitals, health systems, providers and patients have seen the benefits and potential for telehealth to increase access and transform care delivery. The AHA will continue to work with congressional leaders on this important issue, and we look forward to ensuring passage of the CONNECT for Health Act of 2023.