Bipartisan bill seeks to remove roadblocks to telemedicine under Medicare

By Heather Mack

A group of US Senators introduced a new version of a bipartisan bill today seeking Medicare-covered expansion of telehealth and remote patient monitoring services nationwide. The bill was previously introduced by the six-Senator group, which is headed by Brian Schatz (D-HI), in February.

Called the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act, the bill primarily works to waive restrictions around Medicare telehealth coverage that many consider outdated or arbitrary. Along with the Senators, it also has the support of the American Medical Association, the American Telemedicine Association, and the Alliance for Connected Care along with many industry groups, health systems and tech vendors.

“Telehealth is the future of health care. It expands access to care, lowers costs, and helps more people stay healthy,” Senator Brian Schatz said in a statement. “Our bipartisan bill will help change the way patients get the care they need, improving the health care system for both patients and health care providers.”

The CONNECT Act has five main goals as a means to taking down barriers to Medicare-covered telemedicine. As it currently stands, there are several provisions of the Social Security Act that are holding back Medicare reimbursement for telehealth, including restrictions on originating sites, limitations in store and forward technology, and only allowing for telemedicine to be used in certain rural areas. The bill aims to take those roadblocks down by expanding remote patient monitoring programs for people with chronic conditions; defining reimbursable CMS telehealth codes; expanding remote monitoring programs at community health centers and rural clinics, giving HHS the authority to lift restrictions on telehealth; and establishing new allowances for global and bundled payment models.

“The CONNECT for Health Act provides a carefully-crafted approach to begin helping countless American Medicare recipients realize the benefits of connected health technology,” Morgan Reed, executive director of the App Association’s Connected Health Initiative, said in a statement. “By lifting arduous limitations on the use of telehealth and empowering Medicare physicians to utilize innovative remote monitoring technologies, responsible and secure connected health solutions may be introduced more broadly throughout the continuum of care to improve patient health outcomes.”

The bill also builds on the recently reintroduced CHRONIC Care act, which sought, among other things, expanded telemedicine coverage under Medicare Advantage Plan B in 2020 and more freedom for Accountable Care Organizations in their use of telemedicine.

“The AMA strongly supports the CONNECT for Health Act of 2017 and applauds Senators Schatz, Wicker, Cochran, Cardin, Thune, and Warner for their continued leadership on telemedicine issues,” AMA President Dr. Andrew Gurman said in a statement.  “This legislation would advance patient-centered care through strategic and validated telemedicine and remote-patient monitoring tools and modalities. Increasing Medicare coverage for these telemedicine services will help transform the next generation of health care delivery in ways that promote value and improved patient outcomes.”

There have been an in increasing number of legislative efforts to create federal guidelines and standards on telemedicine, and initial cost-effectiveness analyses of the CONNECT bill have shown the bill could save a considerable amount of money. When the first version was introduced, Third Way, a centrist Washington think tank, crunched the numbers on the first three provisions and predicted that they would save the government $1.8 billion. Although the waiver program would increase federal spending by $1.1 billion, the other two would offset those costs.

“Medicare beneficiaries deserve access to telehealth services already available within almost every other health program including Medicaid, Veterans Health, private insurance plans and most recently TRICARE. This bill may be their best hope for this Congress,” American Telemedicine Association CEO Jonathan Linkous said in a statement.