Before the 117th Congress ends in January, health care advocates are pushing lawmakers to approve legislation that would allow hospitals and health systems to continue offering telehealth services.
Now 375 companies, healthcare organizations and hospitals have signed a joint letter urging Senate leaders to act. The Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) helped lead the effort.
“Virtual care is already a core part of the US health care system and will improve patient access to high-quality care and strengthen continuity of care well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Sept. 13 letter said. “Although many of the most compelling clinical use cases for virtual care are just now emerging, more communities than ever have experienced the powerful impact of telehealth in bridging gaps in care.”
Some leading companies that are becoming bigger players in healthcare delivery have signed the letter, including Amazon, CVS Health, Google and Walmart.
Advocacy groups such as the American Telemedicine Association, the American Medical Association and the Medical Group Management Association were also among its signatories, along with companies such as Amwell and Zocdoc.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington eased restrictions on telehealth and virtual care grew like never before. However, these telehealth exemptions are largely tied to the federal government’s public health emergency.
In the spring, Congress and President Biden agreed to a five-month extension of the telehealth exemption after the end of the public health emergency, which currently runs through mid-October. The public health emergency is expected to continue into January. Biden administration officials said they would give 60 days notice before ending the emergency.
Lawmakers proposed a bill that would extend the telehealth exemption until the end of 2024. The House overwhelmingly passed the bill by a 416-12 vote.
Although there is broad and bipartisan support in the Senate, advocates said it is not a no-brainer that the Senate will pass the bill. Part of the reason is that there isn’t too much time left in Congress, and the midterm elections will draw a lot of attention from lawmakers.
In the letter, the health groups urged the Senate to pass a bill to extend the telehealth exemption through at least 2024.
Ultimately, they seek a permanent extension of the exemption.
“The Senate must act to pass a two-year extension of these important telehealth policies, while continuing to push for a permanent extension that includes provisions to remove restrictions on provider and patient location, eliminate personal health requirements for telehealth , providing continuous access to clinically appropriate controlled substances without personal requirements, and increasing access to telehealth services in the commercial market,” the letter states.
Hospitals also asked lawmakers to extend the telehealth exemption, which they say is especially critical because many hospitals have negative operating margins due to the costs of the pandemic.
Health care advocates tout growing evidence of telemedicine’s benefits. Federal researchers recently found that patients using telehealth had a lower risk of overdoses requiring medical treatment.
The researchers also said the study underscores the value of virtual care and calls for its expansion into substance use and behavioral health treatment.
Health groups are also pushing for the expansion of telehealth to address the industry’s continuing shortage of clinicians.
Hal Wolff, President and CEO of HIMSS, said Healthcare CEO recently that telemedicine will be increasingly important in maximizing resources and expanding health care for underserved groups.
“Even if you wanted to build all the hospitals and clinics you could, you couldn’t staff them,” Wolff said. “So digital health is going to be hugely important to ensuring health equity and sharing centers of excellence and sharing information.”
Kyle Zebley of the American Telemedicine Association recently spoke with the healthcare CEO about the telehealth bill. Watch excerpts from our interview in this video.