New bill would mandate research on telehealth regs after coronavirus

The moves by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to relax regulations around telehealth have been lauded by providers and patients around the country. But after the danger from the coronavirus has passed, some fear that the agency will reinstate those regulations, making telehealth less accessible for those who need it. 

Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Illinois, introduced a bill yesterday that would mandate a study on the effects of telehealth changes on Medicare and Medicaid during the COVID-19 crisis.

The “Evaluating Disparities and Outcomes of Telehealth During the COVID-19 Emergency Act of 2020” would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct a study within a year of the end of the emergency period summarizing healthcare utilization patterns during the coronavirus. 

Kelly said she introduced the bill after hearing stories from providers from her district and around the country about the availability of telehealth effect on patient attendance. 

“We wanted to study how we can keep this going. Is this the new norm?” Kelly told Healthcare IT News. Noting that data helps inform policy, she said the goal is to “study it to see if we can make a case that the relaxed regulations should become the new regulations.”

Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, CMS has expanded Medicare benefits to enable beneficiaries to get wider access to telehealth services, and it has loosened regulations around practicing medicine across state lines. Other agencies have also made new allowances, such as HHS Office for Civil Rights relaxing its enforcement around non-HIPAA-compliant technologies during the public health emergency.

Kelly noted that because of the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color, telemedicine can act as an “equalizer” in health.

“With so many African Americans and Latinx people dying and being infected,” she said, telehealth can be a way of “increasing care among communities.” 

Beyond providing triage care for coronavirus symptoms, Kelly argued that telehealth can also address the everyday health needs of people who might otherwise defer preventive care out of fears of infection.

“Because of the pandemic, people don’t even want to come into the doctor’s office,” she said. “Pregnant women didn’t want to come in; people with kids didn’t want to come in.” With telehealth available, she said, “people with children aren’t missing their appointments.” 

Of course, as some have pointed out, telehealth itself can leave at-risk groups behind because of a lack of provider or patient resources, language barriers or other obstacles. Kelly said she hopes the bill, which will also call for an analysis of telehealth use broken down by race and ethnicity, geographic region and income level, will draw attention to these disparities as well.

The bill would also require the Secretary to describe expenditures and savings as a result of telehealth, any instances of fraud and any privacy concerns. 

Eleven Democrats signed on to cosponsor the bill after it was introduced, and Kelly said she’s heard interest from Republicans as well.

“There are a lot of Republicans that represent rural areas,” Kelly pointed out, where telehealth has been in use for years.

Ultimately, Kelly said, she’s hoping this kind of legislation increases access to care. 

“We’re hoping this bill will help leverage telemedicine,” she said. “Healthcare is still the number-one issue in America.”

Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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