AUSTIN (KXAN) — Demand for virtual healthcare services and telemedicine access spiked throughout the pandemic, but a looming deadline could cut off access to some of these services.
U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) said that’s why he plans to file a bill to extend the emergency waivers currently allowing patients and medical providers more access to telehealth.
The national COVID-19 public health emergency declaration (PHE) unlocked several flexibilities in care options, including expanding what types of services can be offered by telehealth. The federal government has extended the PHE several times since March 2020, but the current declaration expires on January 16, 2022.
Rep. Doggett’s office told KXAN the Telehealth Extension Act would not only “prevent an abrupt cliff in services” for patients and providers when the PHE expires, but would also allow for further study and data collection on the impact of telehealth in different medical settings.
“As the pandemic enters an unpredictable new stage and emergency waivers may expire, patients and providers should not face a cliff of uncertainty,” said Congressman Doggett.
If passed, the bill would also permanently end geographic and site restrictions on where patients can receive approved telehealth services. Before the PHE, telehealth options were largely only available to patients in rural and remote areas, where access to health care services has been limited due to rising hospital closures.
Finally, the bill contains anti-fraud provisions to prevent potentially “billions” of dollars in losses to Medicare due to improper telehealth billing.
In October, KXAN investigators looked into a report from the Office of the Inspector General overseeing the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, showing state health officials on high alert for “wasteful errors or possible suspicious activity” when it comes to billing for these services. The report noted a need for close inspection and evaluation on how these services are billed.
Doggett’s office also cited charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department against telehealth executives and physicians in 2019 for $1.2 billion in taxpayer losses after ordering unnecessary back, shoulder and knee braces. In a separate scheme, Medicare was fraudulently billed $2.1 billion for cancer genetic tests. His office said the bill will complement the DOJ’s enforcement actions for schemes like these.
The bill has bipartisan support from several members Chair of the House Ways & Means Health Subcommittee, including Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), and Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) who will help introduce it Thursday afternoon.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted how rural Americans receive health care in fundamental ways. Seniors can now see their doctor from the comfort of their own home, and families can visit the doctor on hours that work for their schedule. Unfortunately, many of the telehealth flexibilities families have come to rely on are going to expire,” said Congressman Kelly. “This bill extends those, then goes further to lower barriers to health care for rural and underserved areas.”
The Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals, Texas Association of Community Health Centers, People’s Community Clinic in Central Texas and the Texas Hospital Association applauded the legislators for introducing the bill.
“As Texas hospitals face workforce shortages related to the pandemic, flexible telehealth policies and partnering with other health care providers has been — and will be — critical to ensuring patients, especially those in remote areas of the state, receive the care they need,” said John Hawkins, Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Public Policy of Texas Hospital Association.
The lawmakers plan to bring the Telehealth Extension Act forward on Thursday afternoon. KXAN will update this article with more responses and reactions from Washington D.C. and across the state after the legislation is introduced.