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Blackburn, colleagues call for extension of pandemic telehealth expansion

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U.S. Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) joined a bipartisan, bicameral group of 44 lawmakers in calling for the permanent extension of expanded coverage of telehealth services to be included in must-pass legislation in February. Early in the pandemic, Senator Blackburn pushed the Trump Administration to waive certain regulations that were preventing Medicare patients from taking advantage of telehealth services.
Throughout this pandemic we have seen how telecommunications systems can help triage and assess ill patients remotely using nurse advice lines, provider visits by telephone, text monitoring systems, video conference, or other telehealth and telemedicine methods can reduce exposure for our most vulnerable. These provisions will expire unless congressional leaders act to extend those measures or make them permanent.
“We strongly support permanently expanding Medicare coverage of telehealth and removing other barriers to the use of telehealth because of its ability to expand access to care, reduce costs, and improve health outcomes. While Congress prepares to enact permanent telehealth legislation, we urge you to include an extension of the pandemic telehealth authorities in must-pass government funding legislation in February,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
In addition to Blackburn, Schatz, and Wicker, the letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Angus King (I-Maine), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and U.S. Representatives Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), James Langevin (D-R.I.), Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), Don Bacon (R-Neb.), and Michael Guest (R-Miss.).
The following is the text from the letter.
Dear Majority Leader Schumer, Minority Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, and Minority Leader McCarthy:
Telehealth has been a critical tool during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that patients continue to receive the health care they need while keeping health care providers and patients safe. Congress recognized the importance of telehealth and included provisions in COVID-19 legislation to increase access to telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries during the pandemic. We strongly support permanently expanding Medicare coverage of telehealth and removing other barriers to the use of telehealth because of its ability to expand access to care, reduce costs, and improve health outcomes. While Congress prepares to enact permanent telehealth legislation, we urge you to include an extension of the pandemic telehealth authorities in must-pass government funding legislation in February.
An extension to maintain expanded coverage of Medicare telehealth services for a set period of time would provide much-needed certainty to health care providers and patients. Ramping up telehealth requires significant costs and resources from health care providers.
However, the pandemic telehealth authorities are temporary and tied to the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration, which is renewed in three-month increments. Without more definitive knowledge about the duration of the pandemic and Medicare’s long-term coverage of telehealth, many organizations have been hesitant to fully invest in telehealth. An extension of the telehealth authorities would provide assurance that the investments will be sustainable over the long term. It would also reassure patients that their care will not end abruptly.
In addition, since the use of telehealth in Medicare was very low before the pandemic, an extension would provide additional time to collect and analyze data on the impacts of telehealth. This data could help inform Congress’s next steps on permanent telehealth legislation and appropriate program integrity and beneficiary protections. In the meantime, it is crucial that an extension not include unnecessary statutory barriers in accessing telehealth services during this data collection and analysis period.
Telehealth has become an essential part of the health care system. The permanent telehealth reforms included in the CONNECT for Health Act, which has bipartisan support from over 170 members of Congress, as well as other telehealth bills, are imperative to increase access to care, reduce costs, and improve health outcomes. In February, Congress should extend the authorities that have expanded coverage of telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to maintain access to telehealth and provide necessary certainty for Medicare telehealth coverage.
We appreciate your collaboration on this important issue.

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