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Scoop: House eyes telehealth extension as next big goal

Apr 8, 2024
Illustration of a physician's hand holding a stethoscope coming out of a laptop screen.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

The three main House health care committees are laying the groundwork for extending pandemic-era Medicare telehealth flexibilities in an end-of-year funding bill, sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: Telehealth will be the House's next health care push after lawmakers pushed a big price transparency bill through the chamber.

  • There's added urgency because pandemic-era flexibilities that were extended in the 2022 year-end spending deal are due to expire at the end of this year.

State of play: Lobbyists are expecting a one- or two-year extension, and the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee this week will begin to tee up proposals. But a final decision will probably have to wait for the lame duck.

  • Beyond E&C, Ways and Means is eyeing a telehealth markup, likely in May.
  • And Education and Workforce is planning a hearing on ways to build on ERISA that include telehealth measures.

Flashback: The omnibus package extended certain telehealth flexibilities in Medicare for two years, including maintaining a waiver on geographic and originating site restrictions to make services more accessible.

  • It also waived the requirement for Medicare beneficiaries to need to have an in-person visit before accessing behavioral health care services.
  • And it extended telehealth flexibilities for rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers, and allowed Medicare beneficiaries to access virtual care when they're at a rural emergency hospital.

Zoom in: The bills E&C will discuss this week include a plan to remove geographic requirements and expand originating sites, and make permanent other measures, such as which practitioners can provide telehealth services.

What they're saying: "We're calling this year, 2024, the Super Bowl of telehealth," said Kyle Zebley, senior vice president for public policy at the American Telemedicine Association.

  • "Just about everything that came about during the pandemic four years ago is set to expire all on one day this year," Zebley said. "If Congress and the various applicable regulatory agencies don't take action before then, all this good work is going right out the door."
  • Zebley also noted that telehealth has traditionally been a bipartisan rallying point in an increasingly divided Congress.

Reality check: Large CBO price tags on previous bills have impeded permanent extensions.

  • Telehealth use also is down from pandemic highs, though certain specialties such as mental health have maintained high rates. And telehealth use is still higher than it was before COVID.
  • There's also been increased turbulence in the telehealth industry lately, as our Pro Health Tech Deals colleague Erin Brodwin noted last week with generalist telehealth businesses.
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