A bill signed by President Bush late last month holds promise for the healthcare industry's telehealth initiatives. Though it took a rocky path en route to the president's desk, the Labor, HHS and Education departments bill includes a provision that would goose the overall budget for the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth by about $3 million. The allotment, though shy of the $10 million proposed by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), brings the total budget for the office to $6.9 million. The office is an offshoot of the Health Resources and Services Administration, which helps funnel federal funds and resources to working health initiatives.
Telehealth is the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical healthcare, patient and professional health-related education, public health and health administration.
Separately, Thune also authored a bill that would establish HHS to lead pilot projects for home health agencies to utilize home monitoring and communications technologies. While the bill doesn't spell out a dollar amount, it does give HHS authority to pay out annual incentives that would equal a portion of the Medicare savings realized under such a program. Introduced last September, the bill has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee. Thune's bill is one of about 17 that have been introduced in the House and Senate during the current congressional session. Another, the Medicare Telehealth Enhancement Act, would remove current geographic limitations for telehealth services and expand the types of facilities that can participate in such programs. Additionally, it would allow HHS to issue grants for expanding access to healthcare services.