Telehealth Bill Could Improve Access to Care for Patients with Chronic Conditions

by Amanda Conschafter, blog editor

A bipartisan bill from the U.S. House of Representatives might help seniors better manage chronic conditions. The Medicare Telehealth Parity Act, H.R. 2948, takes a three-phase, four-year approach to expanding access to telehealth services for underserved populations and conditions such as COPD and diabetes. And it continues to gain support from patient, seniors and medical groups.

The Medicare Telehealth Parity Act

The Medicare Telehealth Parity Act would increase the range of health care providers and services that qualify for telehealth coverage under Medicare statute. It would also diversify the types of origination sites – locations from which telehealth applications can be used – to include more communities, health clinics and, eventually, even patient’s homes. Under the bill Medicare would expand covered services to include those provided by respiratory therapists, speech-language pathologists and diabetes educators.

Across the three phases outlined by the bill, telehealth origination sites would expand incrementally to include any rural health clinic or federally qualified health clinic and metropolitan counties with populations above 100,000 people. Applications would include video conferencing between patients and telehealth professionals as well as “store and forward” – recording clinical data from patients and then forwarding to another site or health care provider for evaluation.

The bill would also include remote patient monitoring capabilities as part of chronic care for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and heart failure. Remote patient monitoring uses home-based or mobile devices to electronically transmit vital sign data or other patient information to a health care professional for review and interpretation.

The bill holds particular promise for patients with chronic respiratory conditions, who sometimes cannot access care from respiratory therapists because of reimbursement challenges. Incorporating respiratory therapists and remote monitoring into Medicare statute could better allow patients to manage conditions such as COPD.

[READ: “Improving Access to Respiratory Care”]

Current Medicare Coverage for Telehealth

Current Medicare coverage of telehealth services is limited to rural counties and health shortage areas and often requires that the patient be at a health facility. Practitioners who can provide telehealth services are likewise limited. And only a select number of services – such as counseling services, patient assessments and smoking cessation – are covered. Remote patient monitoring is not.

H.R. 2948 has garnered bipartisan support in the House of Representative as well as backing from several patient and professional groups. A letter from bill author Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) noted support from the AARP, the American Association of Respiratory Care and the American Heart Association, among others. Telehealth measures have been projected to save the Medicare system more than $1 billion over 10 years or $126 per commercial telehealth visit.

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