Healthcare Business News

Bill would expand coverage for telehealth services

By Rich Daly
Posted: January 4, 2013 - 12:00 pm ET

A bill to expand Medicare and Medicaid coverage of telehealth services that was introduced in the waning days of the last Congress will be reintroduced in the new Congress.

The Telehealth Promotion Act of 2012 would eliminate federal medical exclusions for care "furnished via a telecommunications system." Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) introduced the bill four days before the last Congress ended this week. But a Thompson spokesman told Modern Healthcare that the congressman will reintroduce it in the current Congress.

The bill, which drew the support of the Washington-based American Telemedicine Association, is intended to increase access to telemedicine within Medicare, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, TRICARE, federal employee health plans and the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department.

"This bill represents a panacea for federal involvement in telemedicine, eliminating archaic barriers and expanding opportunities for remote healthcare," Jonathan Linkous, CEO of the ATA, said in a news release. "If passed, this bill will almost instantly make our federally funded health system more effective and more efficient."

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The bill would establish a new federal standard for medical licensure. Similar to existing federal law for military providers, it would allow providers in all federal health plans who are licensed in the state where they are physically located to treat eligible patients anywhere, nationwide.

"This is a major step forward in Congressional support for telemedicine and would extend the benefits of telehealth and mHealth to nearly 75 million Americans," Linkous said.

Other Medicare and Medicaid changes contained in the bill and aimed at augmenting telemedicine's role in healthcare include providing incentives to hospitals that lower readmissions through the use of telemedicine; allowing ACOs to use telemedicine as an equivalent substitute for in-person care; and creating a telemedicine service option in Medicaid for patients who have high-risk pregnancies.

Thompson is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare and federal healthcare financing, and it is one of the committees to which the bill was referred. He introduced similar legislation in April 2009, but that bill did not advance.

Gary Capistrant, senior director of public policy at the ATA, said opposition from members of Congress concerned about the bill's costlier provisions could result in some provisions being peeled off and inserted into other bills. Medicare, he said, could derive savings from allowing ACOs to use telemedicine, and Medicaid could see savings through the bill's prenatal telemedicine pilot.

The bill's provisions allowing clinicians to practice in states where they are not licensed also is likely to draw opposition from state medical boards, he said.

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