Press Releases

Rep. Jason Smith Introduces Bipartisan Bill to Ensure Rural Telehealth Access for Seniors

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Washington, May 24, 2021 | comments

Washington, D.C. – This week, Congressman Jason Smith (R-MO) and Congressman Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) introduced the Permanency for Audio-Only Telehealth Act, legislation to help ensure Medicare recipients who cannot access the video component during telehealth visits are able to access care through audio-only.

“The COVID-19 pandemic required the U.S. healthcare system to innovate and embrace every viable method of healthcare delivery. For patients in rural areas back home in Missouri, none have been more beneficial than the expansion of audio-only telehealth,” said Rep. Jason Smith. “This method of healthcare delivery should serve as a bridge to provide better care and remain a permanent option for patients who will not gain access to broadband and technology overnight.”

In order to help facilitate the use of telehealth among Medicare patients, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) allowed health care providers to offer audio-only telehealth services under Medicare and Medicaid plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been a lifeline to low-income and rural patients who, for example, may have trouble accessing technology or broadband services supporting video communications. Additionally, seniors or at-risk populations may have physical limitations that prevent them from using video communications. For these patients, an audio-only telehealth visit may be the only option besides foregoing needed care.

"The pandemic has created challenges for everyone, but it's also shown us that technology can provide safe and dependable communication between patients and their doctors. Innovations including telehealth and audio-only capabilities will improve efficiency, reduce costs, and increase access to health care providers — especially for our seniors and our rural communities. I am proud to be leading this bipartisan legislation with my colleague and friend Congressman Jason Smith to provide critical access to audio telehealth in North Jersey and across the country." – Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ)

Unfortunately, these telehealth flexibilities are slated to expire at the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency. The Permanency for Audio-Only Telehealth Act will allow providers to offer audio-only telehealth services to Medicare enrollees, providing them with the resources necessary to adequately care for their patients.

Additionally, the bill would remove geographic and originating site restrictions to allow Medicare beneficiaries’ homes to be telehealth originating sites for audio-only telehealth services.

Statements of Support:

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, audio-only visits have provided a lifeline to patients who are unable to attend visits in person or participate in telehealth visits due to lack of broadband access or necessary equipment to facilitate the visits. The need for these services will not disappear upon the conclusion of the COVID-19 public health emergency, but the ability to deliver them to Medicare beneficiaries will without congressional action. Patients should not be penalized for living far away from healthcare facilities or living in areas with inadequate internet access. MGMA applauds Representatives Smith and Gottheimer for introducing this critical legislation, which will give medical groups the ability to continue treating vulnerable patients past the conclusion of the COVID-19 public health emergency.” – Andres M. Gilberg, Senior Vice President, Government Affairs for the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA)

“Telehealth is here to stay, and Congressman Smith’s audio-only telehealth bill offers a welcome reminder that not everyone who needs to talk to a doctor or nurse remotely has a smartphone and internet connection. Indeed, nearly one-third of all Medicare telehealth visits during the current pandemic have been delivered by audio-only telephone. Audio-only access is essential, especially for lower-income households, and should be a permanent feature of modern medicine alongside other forms of telehealth, including store-and-forward and remote monitoring tools.”- Americans for Prosperity

Mary R. Grealy, President of Healthcare Leadership Council, stated, “No one should lose access to healthcare options in the midst of a pandemic because of a lack of broadband access. The provision in this legislation that would allow the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) the ability to permanently cover audio-only telehealth services is critical for the continued success in treating populations experiencing heightened health challenges during this time.” She continued, “It is important that the progress made in expanding care delivery to these populations is not rolled back at the end of the pandemic.”

“The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention applauds Representatives Jason Smith and Josh Gottheimer for their bipartisan leadership in introducing legislation to expand audio-only telehealth coverage beyond the pandemic for our nation’s older adults and younger individuals with disabilities that rely on Medicare for essential health and mental health care,” said Robert Gebbia, Chief Executive Officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Permanently allowing audio-only telehealth will serve as a key lifeline for individuals without video and audio enabled devices, bandwidth or the digital literacy, − largely impacting rural communities, racial and ethnic populations and those with lower-incomes− to be able to receive safe, timely and effective mental health treatment, including care for risk of suicide.”

“Centerstone applauds Representatives Smith and Gottheimer and for their leadership in introducing this legislation – which is critical to ensuring rural Americans and Americans who may not have video enabled technology can still access life changing mental health care and substance use disorder treatment.”  - Lauren Conaboy, Vice President of National Policy, Centerstone


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