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Dive Brief:

  • A group of 375 organizations sent a letter to the Senate on Tuesday urging lawmakers to act to pass legislation extending COVID-19-era telehealth flexibilities for another two years.
  • The letter was led by health IT and telehealth lobbies, but also joined by a number of health systems including Ascension and Cleveland Clinic, physician groups including the American Medical Association, tech companies including Amazon and Google and large employers including Walmart.
  • Without action, the policies — which threw open the doors to telehealth and led to skyrocketing utilization in the early days of the pandemic — will expire 151 days after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Dive Insight:

The letter asks the Senate to extend telehealth flexibilities for both Medicare and commercial market patients, including waiving provider and patient location limitations, lifting in-person requirements for telemental health and allowing providers to continue prescribing controlled substances via virtual care.

It also asks lawmakers to take steps to increase access to telehealth in the commercial market, including allowing people with high-deductible health plan health savings accounts to access telehealth coverage without first meeting annual deductibles.

Telehealth use snowballed in the first year of the pandemic. More than 28 million Medicare beneficiaries — roughly two in five — used virtual care in that year. In total, beneficiaries used 88 times more telehealth services in COVID-19’s first year than in the year prior, according to government data.

Telehealth interests are racing to shore up access as pandemic tailwinds ease. Though telehealth use has dropped from its 2020 highs, studies show a sustained level of demand among consumers for virtually delivered care.

The potential for waste and abuse is a sticking point for some lawmakers mulling expanded telehealth access, though a recent HHS report found telehealth fraud is relatively rare.

The House recently passed a two-year extension of telehealth flexibilities, though the Senate has yet to take up the bill. Meanwhile, physicians are urging the CMS not to decrease payment rates for telehealth services next year, after reimbursing virtual care visits at the same rate as in-office visits during COVID-19.

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