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Smith Introduces Bill to Expand Telehealth in Rural Areas

Press Release

Date: Dec. 18, 2020
Location: Washington, DC

Today, U.S. Congressman Jason Smith introduced the Permanency for Audio-Only Telehealth Act, which would require the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS) to continue reimbursing Medicare providers for certain audio-only telehealth visits.

At the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, Congressman Smith held a call with 50 health care providers, doctors, and other medical professionals from around southern Missouri to hear from them about what resources they need and how he could help. On the call, Smith heard how Medicare's strict telehealth requirements, which mandate video communication, create barriers to healthcare for rural patients. Congressman Smith subsequently requested the Trump Administration update Medicare guidance to permit health care providers to evaluate seniors over the telephone instead of in person or requiring a video conference. Following Smith's request, and at President Trump's direction, CMS took historic and unprecedented steps to do just that - creating a lifeline for patients in rural areas who may lack access to broadband or video technology.

Specifically, Smith's legislation would require CMS continue reimbursing providers for audio-only telehealth evaluation and management services and mental and behavioral health services. Additionally, the bill would remove geographic restrictions to allow Medicare beneficiaries' homes to be telehealth originating sites for audio-only telehealth services.

"One of the lasting impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic is the rapid expansion and increase in the utilization of telehealth services." Smith continued, "For rural and underserved areas who struggle with access to broadband and technology, none have had a greater impact than audio-only telehealth visits."

"The American Psychological Association commends Reps. Jason Smith and Tony Cardenas for their bipartisan leadership on telehealth legislation that will increase access to essential mental health care for Medicare beneficiaries beyond the pandemic," said APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD. "Allowing patients to receive mental health services by audio-only telephone is a matter of health equity for underserved populations, and APA applauds this important equalizer. This bill will allow patients to receive services at home no matter where they live − whether in rural, urban or suburban communities."

"Telehealth is here to stay, and Congressman Smith's audio-only telehealth bill offers a welcome reminder that not everyone who needs to talk to a doctor or nurse remotely has a smartphone and internet connection. Indeed, nearly one-third of all Medicare telehealth visits during the current pandemic have been delivered by audio-only telephone. Audio-only access is essential, especially for lower-income households, and should be a permanent feature of modern medicine alongside other forms of telehealth, including store-and-forward and remote monitoring tools."- Americans for Prosperity

Mary R. Grealy, President of Healthcare Leadership Council, stated, "No one should lose access to healthcare options in the midst of a pandemic because of a lack of broadband access. The provision in this legislation that would allow the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) the ability to permanently cover audio-only telehealth services is critical for the continued success in treating populations experiencing heightened health challenges during this time." She continued, "It is important that the progress made in expanding care delivery to these populations is not rolled back at the end of the pandemic."

"Audio-only access is imperative in ensuring access to urgently needed mental and behavioral health services, especially for marginalized groups. The pandemic has laid bare the major disparities in health across the nation. Eliminating these disparities must be one of our highest priorities. Making audio-only telehealth permanently available is one of the key mechanisms for advancing this priority." - Anna Mangum, MSW, MPH, Deputy Director of Programs, National Association of Social Workers

Rep. Smith was joined by his Democratic colleague, Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-CA) who said, "As COVID-19 cases continue rising everywhere, Americans are adapting to a new reality of social distancing, remote working, and telecommunicating. Millions of at-risk Americans, including seniors, are shifting to telehealth consultation and services. It is imperative that our laws reflect the changes of this time. This commonsense legislation will help save American lives by making it easier for our seniors and at-risk citizens to access these services from the safety of their homes."


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