Senators Shaheen, Hassan Join Bipartisan Calls for Permanent Expansion of Telehealth Services Implemented Amid COVID-19

June 15, 2020

Telehealth Use Among Medicare Beneficiaries Up More Than 11,000% In Just Over A Month

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan joined a bipartisan group of their colleagues in calling for a permanent expansion of telehealth services that Congress included in bipartisan COVID-19 relief legislation. The bipartisan CARES Act, which Senators Hassan and Shaheen supported back in March, included a provision to expand access to telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries in New Hampshire and across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Americans have benefited significantly from this expansion of telehealth and have come to rely on its availability,” the Senators wrote in a letter to Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “Congress should expand access to telehealth services on a permanent basis so that telehealth remains an option for all Medicare beneficiaries both now and after the pandemic. Doing so would assure patients that their care will not be interrupted when the pandemic ends. It would also provide certainty to health care providers that the costs to prepare for and use telehealth would be a sound long-term investment.”

In their letter, led by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), the Senators highlight the growing use and benefits of telehealth during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as patients seek to avoid traveling to hospitals and other providers and instead receive care at home. New data shows that the number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services increased by 11,718 percent in just a month and a half during the pandemic.

Senators Shaheen and Hassan are working to expand telehealth in New Hampshire and across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and recently urged the Department of Veterans Affairs to strengthen New Hampshire veterans’ access to telehealth. The Senators also joined a bipartisan group of their colleagues in urging the Federal Communications Commission to increase support to health care providers through the Rural Health Care Program to help them deliver and expand telehealth services for rural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The full text of the letter is below and available here.

Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:

As you continue your work on critical legislation to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, we write to ask that you make permanent the provisions from our bipartisan CONNECT for Health Act that were included in previous COVID-19 legislation.  These provisions have resulted in an important expansion of access to telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries during the pandemic. 

We have long advocated for increasing access to telehealth because of its potential to expand access to health care, reduce costs, and improve health outcomes.  Telehealth has proven to be pivotal for many patients during the current pandemic, ensuring they receive the care they need while reducing the risk of infection and the further spread of COVID-19.  We have all heard from our constituents about how effective and convenient it is.  Expanded Medicare coverage of telehealth services on a permanent basis—where clinically appropriate and with appropriate guardrails and beneficiary protections in place—would ensure that telehealth continues to be an option for all Medicare beneficiaries after the pandemic ends.

As you know, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020 and the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act included provisions from the CONNECT for Health Act to increase access to telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Specifically, these laws provide the Secretary of Health and Human Services the authority to waive telehealth requirements under Section 1834(m) of the Social Security Act, allow Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and Rural Health Clinics (RHCs) to provide distant site telehealth services, and allow for the use of telehealth to conduct the face-to-face visit required to recertify a patient’s eligibility for hospice care. 

Because of these new authorities provided by Congress, Medicare has expanded coverage of telehealth services for the duration of the pandemic to include all areas of the country—as well as allowing a patient’s home to serve as an originating site for telehealth.  In addition, more types of health care providers—including FQHCs and RHCs that provide primary care in rural and underserved areas—are able to furnish and bill Medicare for telehealth services.  These changes have already contributed to a dramatic increase in the use of telehealth services in Medicare.  Available data show that the number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services during the pandemic increased 11,718 percent in just a month and a half.

Americans have benefited significantly from this expansion of telehealth and have come to rely on its availability.  Congress should expand access to telehealth services on a permanent basis so that telehealth remains an option for all Medicare beneficiaries both now and after the pandemic.  Doing so would assure patients that their care will not be interrupted when the pandemic ends.  It would also provide certainty to health care providers that the costs to prepare for and use telehealth would be a sound long-term investment. 

In addition, given the recent flexibilities provided by both Congress and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the increased use of telehealth during the pandemic, we believe now is an important time to measure the impact of telehealth on Medicare.  Specifically, the federal government should collect and analyze data on the impact of telehealth on utilization, quality, health outcomes, and spending during the COVID-19 pandemic.  There is currently a scarcity of data available regarding the impact of telehealth on the Medicare program.  This data would assist Congress in crafting additional policies to improve health outcomes and use resources more effectively.

Thank you for your continued leadership during the present crisis.  We look forward to continuing to work together to increase access to telehealth.