Is Telemedicine Change Coming to Congress? The Medicare Telehealth Parity Act of 2017 Among Several New Federal Bills

Congress is reconsidering a nationwide telehealth coverage bill, named the Medicare Telehealth Parity Act of 2017, designed to introduce an incremental, though significant, expansion of coverage for telehealth services under the Medicare program. The bipartisan Act is sponsored by Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA), with seven co-sponsors to date (four Republican, three Democrat). If enacted, the Act would modernize the way Medicare reimburses telehealth services by expanding the number of qualifying geographic locations and expanding coverage of telehealth services in a series of three phases.

A previous incarnation of the Act failed to advance, but has been given new life by the recently-formed bipartisan Congressional Telehealth Caucus. The Caucus was founded by Representatives Thompson, Gregg Harper (R-MS), Diane Black (R-TN), and Peter Welch (D-VT), and has garnered additional members in the last couple weeks.

Here is a summary of the key provisions in the Act, aligned according to its three implementation phases.

Phase 1 expands qualifying originating sites to include all federally qualified health centers and all rural health clinics, and the qualifying geographic location also includes counties in Metropolitan Statistical Areas with populations fewer than 50,000. Additionally, Phase 1 expands telehealth coverage to include services provided by certified diabetes educators, respiratory therapists, audiologists, occupational therapists, speech language therapists, and physical therapists. Phase 1 also provides Medicare coverage of asynchronous (store & forward) telehealth services across the country (not just Alaska and Hawaii).

Phase 2 expands qualifying originating sites to include a home telehealth site, and the qualifying originating geographic location include counties in Metropolitan Statistical Areas with populations of 50,000-100,000.

Phase 3 expands qualifying originating geographic locations to include counties in Metropolitan Statistical Areas with populations above 100,000. Additionally, the Act authorizes the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to develop and implement new payment methods for these telehealth services.

The Act also includes provisions for Medicare coverage of remote patient monitoring services (RPM) for covered chronic care conditions, and home dialysis services for those with end stage renal disease.

Several Congressional Telehealth Proposals at Play

The Medicare Telehealth Parity Act of 2017 is just one of a growing number of bills filed this year that seek to remove Medicare coverage restrictions on telehealth services and improve access. Several notable bills are as follows:

  • The Chronic Kidney Disease Improvement in Research and Treatment Act of 2017 (CKDIRT) would, among other things, eliminate restrictions on telemedicine to treat kidney patients in their homes.
  • The Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies for Health Act (CONNECT Act) seeks to expand the use of telehealth among Medicare beneficiaries.
  • The Helping Expand Access to Rural Telehealth Act (HEART Act) seeks to remove barriers to the adoption of telehealth services in rural areas, expand telehealth services to rural clinics and Metropolitan Statistical Areas of 70,000 people or fewer, and add Medicare coverage for remote patient monitoring of congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.
  • The Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic Care Act of 2017 (CHRONIC Act) would seek to reduce Medicare costs by improving chronic disease management services and care coordination at home, shifting the patient site of service.

The introduction of the Medicare Telehealth Parity Act of 2017, coupled with other telehealth related bills and the creation of the Congressional Telehealth Caucus, represents continued progress towards expanded telehealth coverage and hopefully portends increasing support for and understanding of telehealth benefits among federal lawmakers. Health care providers and telemedicine companies should recognize the importance of this progress, as it is an opportunity to contribute their voices and help shape public policy on telehealth and virtual care services.

Copyright 2017, American Health Lawyers Association, Washington, DC. Reprint permission granted.