Senators work to extend telehealth policies beyond coronavirus pandemic


WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) – Prior to COVID-19, doctors conducted nearly all appointments with their patients in person.

But during the past three months, about half of the visits have gone online through telehealth services.

The Senate Health Committee considered Wednesday what temporary federal measures Congress passed to promote telemedicine during the pandemic should continue as the virus subsides.

“Because of COVID-19, our healthcare sector and government have been forced to cram 10 years worth of telehealth experience into just three months,” said Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-TN.

Alexander doesn’t expect that practice to change any time soon.  

“That would produce a massive change in our healthcare delivery system,” he said.

Alexander wants to see at least two of the 31 temporary coronavirus policies become permanent: reimbursing doctors for telehealth appointments no matter where the patient is located and expanding the number of telehealth services Medicare can reimburse.

The healthcare professionals who testified at Wednesday’s committee hearing all agreed with Alexander.

“Because the data is still accumulating, it’s too early to definitively say that the expansion of telehealth has improved health outcomes, but it has undoubtedly improved access to care,” said Dr. Andrea Willis, the SVP and chief medical officer of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

Willis told lawmakers the policies have encouraged more patients to seek help from doctors and reduced unnecessary emergency room visits, but she wants to make sure the video platforms they use protect their medical information.

“The question of whether to extend the HIPAA privacy waivers should be considered carefully,” Alexander said.

Sen. Doug Jones, D-AL, said this is also important as he works to expand telemedicine to patients with chronic conditions.

“Connectivity continues to be an issue,” Jones said. “And I think that remote monitoring can help bridge that divide.”

Willis told Jones reimbursements for these regular checkups are in the works.

“As soon as we have clarity between us and the providers, I think that we will have recommendations for lawmakers,” she said.

Jones recently introduced legislation that would make $50 million in grants available for remote patient monitoring during the pandemic.

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