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Lenz Featured in State Affairs on "The Future of Telemedicine"

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TPG Director of Health Policy Catherine Lenz was recently featured in the State Affairs' weekly newsletter, Beltway Beat. Lenz focused on the urgency to address rural health needs and how telemedicine fits into that narrative. 

Congress Weighing the Future of Telemedicine

by Catherine Lenz

It is no secret that COVID-19 shined a light on the urgency to address rural health needs. Rural hospitals are struggling to keep their doors open as costs continue to rise, and our nation faces a health professional staffing crisis. Congress recognizes there is an access issue that must be addressed.

Last fall, the House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee released a Request for Information, gathering policy ideas and information to increase rural health access. The Committee held a series of hearings over the last few months targeting various rural health topics. Over in the Senate, the Finance Committee has also held several hearings on rural access issues. With both chambers signaling bipartisan interest in addressing rural health access, this very well might be an issue that moves during the Lame Duck session later this fall.

At the center of many of the rural health discussions is the December 2024 expiration of telehealth flexibilities granted during the COVID public health emergency. These flexibilities include policies such as removing geographic and originating site requirements, allowing additional providers to offer telehealth services, and allowing for audio-only services.

Following the pandemic, Congress recognized the value of these flexibilities, especially in rural areas where patients may not have access to a provider or required service, and extended the policies through December of 2024.

House committees of jurisdiction have taken up measures to address the quickly approaching expiration. In April, the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health passed the “Telehealth Modernization Act of 2024,” where it awaits consideration by the full committee. In May, the Ways and Means Committee passed the “Preserving Telehealth, Hospital, and Ambulance Access Act of 2024.”

Both measures would extend the COVID telehealth flexibilities through 2026. However, the Energy and Commerce bill includes a measure that would pay rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers the same amount for telehealth visits as in-person outpatient visits, while the Ways & Means bill does not include this provision. While the Senate has not pointed to any specific measures, they have indicated support for the House’s efforts to extend the policies through 2026.

Given the support and popularity of telehealth services, many are questioning why not make them permanent. Congress is apprehensive to make these policies permanent due to the cost and the need for fraud and abuse protections. Additional concerns include what services are appropriate for telehealth, and adequate reimbursement rates.

While concerns persist over permanently extending the current telehealth flexibilities, Congress continues to indicate support for these services as a whole. There is broad recognition that rural health access is a major challenge, and providing continued telehealth services is one way to ensure patients in rural areas have access to healthcare. Congress will certainly continue to keep their eye on this issue through the end of the year.

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