Trahan, Kuster, Welch Call for Extension of Critical Audio-Only Telehealth Services
Washington, September 8, 2022
WASHINGTON, DC – On Tuesday, Representatives Lori Trahan (MA-03), Annie Kuster (NH-02), and Peter Welch (VT-AL), members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee, sent a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) requesting that the agency consider the benefits that pandemic era audio-only telehealth services have had for patients in need of care who may not have the means to travel to a physician’s office or access a video telehealth appointment.
“The adoption of audio-only telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic has given providers alternative options to communicate with patients, alleviating workforce burdens by shifting care interactions to telecommunication when in-person visits were not required for quality of care,” the lawmakers wrote. “The subsequent coverage decisions from CMS and corresponding Administration actions have encouraged providers to adapt to meet the needs of patients, whether that be in-person or utilizing video or audio visits, and many providers support the continuation of audio only telehealth.”
In its July Physician Fee Schedule Proposed Rule, CMS disclosed plans to eliminate Medicare coverage for audio-only telehealth services that, since implementation, have increased access to health care for patients, particularly vulnerable individuals in rural and traditionally underserved areas. Should the proposed rule take effect, most audio-only telehealth services would no longer be covered for Medicare recipients starting 151 days after the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency declaration expires, meaning individuals without internet access or video and audio capable devices could be forced to delay the care they need or even forego it altogether.
“Receiving high quality, affordable care should not require internet access. Taking advantage of video telehealth services requires digital literacy. Overall, 45 percent of adults experience some type of technology or access barrier to participate in telehealth services. We urge CMS to consider how ending coverage for audio-only telehealth for most services will compromise the provider-patient relationship and disproportionately impact populations who face barriers to accessing care,” the lawmakers continued.
The value of audio-only telehealth services has been touted by federal health officials as recently as this summer. In June guidance issued by the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights on HIPAA and Audio-Only Telehealth, the Office said “While telehealth can significantly expand access to health care, certain populations may have difficulty accessing or be unable to access technologies used for audio-video telehealth because of various factors… Audio-only telehealth, especially using technologies that do not require broadband availability, can help address the needs of some of these individuals.”
As CMS considers its proposed rule, continued coverage of audio-only telehealth services is strongly supported by physician organizations and medical facilities responsible for implementing care.
In a January letter to CMS, American Medical Association Executive Vice President and CEO Dr. James L. Madara, MD wrote, “Payment for audio-only visits has been a lifeline for patients during the COVID-19 PHE. The need for these services to be available will not diminish when the PHE ends, and the AMA strongly urges CMS to continue separate payment for the CPT codes in the future.”
“Community Health Centers across the Commonwealth rely on audio-only telehealth as a modality of care to ensure they can provide equitable access to care for their patients,” said Michael Curry, CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. “This modality has been a critical tool and its elimination would result in diminished patient access and worse health outcomes in already vulnerable communities. As we face a significant “deferred care” crisis, this is not the time to erect a new barrier to access.”
A copy of the letter sent to CMS Tuesday can be accessed HERE.