CMS, FCC Push for Permanent Telehealth Expansion

July 22, 2020

Actions by both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) are on track to establish telemedicine as a permanent fixture of the United States healthcare system during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under a proposed rule, CMS would permanently allow as administrative costs the expenses related to telehealth for over 11,000 home health agencies that are registered with Medicare for patient care. To be eligible under the proposed rule the telehealth visit must be outlined in a care plan, be part of a treatment goal, and be related to skilled services being provided such as physical or occupational therapy.

Writing in the journal Health Affairs CMS administrator Seema Verma detailed the growth of telemedicine since the pandemic began. “Before the public health emergency, approximately 13,000 beneficiaries in fee-for-service Medicare received telemedicine in a week … in total 9 million beneficiaries have received a telehealth service during the public health emergency, mid-March through mid-June.”

Under Medicare and many private insurers, telemedicine services include phone-only visits and patient/provider interactions by email.

The FCC announced it has given out its full allotment of $200 million under its COVID-19 Telehealth Program to support more than 500 healthcare providers across the country who have expanded telehealth. Much of the FCC funding covered the costs of laptop computers, tablets, video monitors, and network upgrades at hospitals and community centers.

Other FCC telehealth initiatives include:

  • The FCC waived gift rules in the Rural Health Care programs to allow healthcare providers to accept improved capacity, Wi-Fi hotspots, networking gear, or other equipment or services to support doctors and patients during the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Increased funding of $42.19 million for the Rural Health Care Program to promote telehealth solutions for patients during this outbreak.
  • A waiver for GE Healthcare to expedite medical equipment such as wearable patient monitors, diagnostic testing systems, and portable x-rays from new suppliers during the pandemic, and one for MIT for certification and marketing of its WiTrack system for remote patient monitoring.

On July 16, the Telehealth Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Protecting Access to Post-COVID-19 Telehealth Act. The legislation would expand the use of telehealth beyond just during the corona virus outbreak including:

  • Allowing telehealth patients to see providers licensed in any state (current rules vary).
  • Ensure Federally Qualified Health Centers and Rural Health Clinics can continue to care for their patients through telehealth.
  • Give the Department of Health and Human Services permanent temporary waiver authority for future emergencies.

“Some of the flexibilities put in place to allow greater access to telehealth will immediately be reversed when the public health emergency expires unless Congress acts to preserve them,” said Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association. “The health of our citizens and the integrity of our healthcare system cannot withstand telehealth services to simply “switch off” when the COVID-19 pandemic ends.