A bipartisan group of Senate Finance Committee leaders on Thursday proposed expanding telehealth access for mental health services.
The committee issued a discussion draft that pushes to eliminate Medicare's in-person visit requirement prior to patients seeking online mental health services. This requirement has not gone into effect due to the COVID-19 public health emergency. But when the emergency ends, it would limit older adults' ability to access virtual care.
Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), ranking member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) released the draft urging stronger legislative action.Telehealth services proved to be a "game-changer" during the pandemic, Wyden said in a news release.
Despite increased access to care through telehealth, the pandemic has taken a toll on Americans' physical and mental health. Nearly one in five adults, or 53 million Americans, reported living with a mental illness in 2020, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Even as patients return to other in-person appointments, virtual behavioral health sessions continue to be in demand more than two years after the pandemic shutdown.
"Telehealth, particularly for behavioral health services, has become an essential component of care," Cardin said in a news release.
Virtual care became a critical component of Medicare beneficiary care during COVID-19. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra vowed in March to continue telehealth services when the public health emergency ends.
The senators' draft bill also demands benefit transparency for Medicare members looking for telemental health services, urges the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to encourage providers to promote telehealth services and calls for states to use their Children's Health Insurance Programs to address mental health in schools via telehealth.
"These policies will help strengthen access, awareness and support for telehealth, including by creating a 'bill of rights' for information on the availability of telehealth for mental healthcare," Wyden said.