Even with the prospect of Obamacare repeal and replace on the backburner for now, the federal government continues to focus on health care. Following August recess, Congress will have less than four weeks to work through must-pass legislation that would fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Currently, federal funding for the program — which covers nearly 8.5 million low- and moderate-income children — is set to expire on September 30, 2017.
Amidst this hard-stop deadline for program funding, this must-pass legislation could become a vehicle to attach other party priorities such as pieces of the repeal/replace language or expansion of telehealth services for Medicaid beneficiaries. In light of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ plan to expand telehealth services for our nation’s veterans, it’s clear the federal government has begun to recognize the importance of these services in ensuring widespread access to health care throughout the country. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) has also announced a Medicare telehealth services audit as a supplement to OIG’s 2017 Work Plan. The report is expected to be issued in 2017 and will review Medicare claims to ensure patients received care from an eligible originating site and that all appropriate conditions have been met for reimbursement.
Likewise, technology giants such as Amazon, Apple and others are dedicating significant amounts of money and resources to advance the technological components of health care, including greater interoperability of electronic health records (EHRs) and associated telemedicine technologies. A late July 2017 report from CNBC announced the creation of a special program within Amazon, dubbed ‘1492,’ that would be responsible for the development of opportunities to advance telemedicine functionality and consumer navigation of the health care delivery system.
Understanding the clear public- and private-sector interest in advancing access to telehealth services, Congress has begun debate on several bills introduced with the intention of maintaining and expanding access to health care for vulnerable populations throughout the country. While the fate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) remains uncertain, passage of these bills — whether standalone or in a package alongside other legislation — would improve access to quality and timely care for all Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. Recent data shared from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) now notes that in 2016 alone, Medicare spending on telehealth services totaled $28.75 million over nearly 500,000 patient claims. These numbers reflect a 1,143-percent and 977-percent increase in spending and individual claims for telehealth services, respectively, over the past decade, and a 28 percent jump in the last year alone.
Each of the bills listed below has either been recently introduced or noted as a potential addition to the CHIP reauthorization; all are designed to improve acceptance and access to telehealth services.
With these bills, the federal government would catch up with, but not exceed, the efforts of leading states. Most recently, Texas and New Jersey passed legislation that broadens the practice of telemedicine, and nearly all large employers are beginning to offer these services.