Senator Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, is calling for any changes made to accommodate telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic to be made permanent following new data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) demonstrating the expanding use of telehealth services to avoid the virus.

“Telehealth is popular and bipartisan because it reduces the cost of health care and improves quality and availability,” Schatz said in a July 16 statement. “The skyrocketing use of telehealth during the pandemic shows that we cannot and should not go back to the Stone Ages of telehealth coverage. The changes that were enacted in the CARES Act to expand access to telehealth should be made permanent.”

CMS data marked “unprecedented increases in telemedicine” during the pandemic. Before COVID-19 hit, approximately 13,000 Medicare beneficiaries were using telemedicine each week. In the last week of April, nearly 1.7 million beneficiaries used telemedicine services – totaling nine million beneficiaries receiving telehealth services throughout the pandemic.

The CARES Act made several strides to improve connectivity and access to telehealth services, including a $200 million emergency telehealth program led by the Federal Communications Commission. Other efforts, such as the softening of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) enforcement, have been implemented throughout the pandemic to encourage use of telehealth services.

Prior to COVID-19 in October 2019, Schatz and five other bipartisan senators introduced the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2019 to expand telehealth services through Medicare. The bill has not advanced past its initial introduction.

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Katie Malone
Katie Malone
Katie Malone is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.