Bipartisan senate bill seeks Medicare coverage for telemedicine

By Heather Mack
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Reimbursement for telemedicine is still far from equal across health plans and state lines, especially for those under government programs. But there’s a new piece of telemedicine legislation on the table that could establish a federal model for Medicare populations.  

The bipartisan Senate bill functions as an experiment: Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI) introduced the Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act, which require the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) to “test the effect of including telehealth services in Medicare health care delivery reform models.”

The bill would require the Department of Health and Human Services to allow eligible hospitals to test telehealth services through CMMI. Subsequently, the HHS will direct CMMI to conduct evaluations for cost, effectiveness and improvement of health outcomes without increasing the cost of delivery. If the test telemedicine models can meet that set of criteria, a system-wide program will be established and covered through Medicare.

Even though the most recent state-by-state “report card” by the American Telemedicine Association noted that 2017 was the first year all Medicaid agencies were covering at least some form of telemedicine services, Medicare currently only covers a limited amount. If passed, the bill could potentially have significant impact on aging, low-income and rural-dwelling populations.

While the bill would establish standards for both urban and rural populations, the focus is primarily on those living in areas far away from healthcare services. Senator Peters referred to the bill as, “bipartisan, common sense legislation,” that would help rural and underserved communities who would otherwise not have access to specialty care, or who are overusing the emergency department. Gardner – who introduced similar legislation in 2015 that was never passed  – echoed the sentiment.

“All Coloradans deserve access to health care services regardless of whether they live in rural or urban areas,” Senator Gardner said in a statement. “The Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act would allow Medicare to expand coverage of telehealth services and increase access for people living in rural America. It would also incentivize the healthcare industry to develop new technologies that could potentially reduce costs and improve patient health. “