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Sewell sponsors bipartisan legislation to expand telehealth services for seniors

Congresswoman Terri Sewell during a committee hearing. Office of Rep. Terri Sewell

Congress members Terri Sewell, D-Alabama; Jackie Walorski, R-Indiana; Ron Kind, D-Wisconsin; Tony Cárdenas, D-California; and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, on Wednesday introduced the bipartisan Ensuring Parity in MA for Audio-Only Telehealth Act.

This legislation is designed to help ensure Medicare Advantage enrollees who cannot access the video component during telehealth visits are able to access care through audio visits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the COVID-19 outbreak, an increasing number of Americans have been relying on telehealth services to access the care they need and deserve,” Sewell said. “Utilizing telehealth services helps reduce the risk of exposure for both patients and health care workers, mitigating the spread of COVID-19. The Ensuring Parity in MA for Audio-Only Telehealth will allow those enrolled in Medicare Advantage to access audio as well as video telehealth services to ensure they are not forced to forego critical care during the pandemic, as many of our seniors live in rural areas without access to broadband speeds that support video connections.”

To help facilitate the use of telehealth among MA patients, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has provided flexibility to allow health care providers to offer telehealth services under MA plans. However, this guidance requires that the encounters include a video component, which is not an option for many patients. Low-income and rural patients, 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.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, older Americans and enrollees in Medicare Advantage have been utilizing telehealth services to access care they need. In many instances, telehealth services can help to reduce the risk of exposure for both vulnerable patient populations, like seniors, and health care workers,” Fitzpatrick said. “I am proud to support this bipartisan legislation to make sure that seniors enrolled in Medicare Advantage, who may be limited to an audio-only telehealth visit, have more options and can continue to safely receive the care they deserve throughout this public health emergency.”

The Ensuring Parity in MA for Audio-Only Telehealth Act will allow providers to offer audio-only telehealth services to MA enrollees, providing them with the resources necessary to adequately care for their patients.

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“As Americans adapt to this new reality of social distancing, remote working, and telecommunicating, it is imperative that our laws reflect the changes of this time,” Cardenas said. “Millions of seniors rely on Medicare Advantage for critical life-saving services, and as the risk for elderly Americans remain high during this pandemic, we must ensure that they have access to telehealth services. This commonsense legislation makes it easier for our seniors to access these services while reducing risk of coronavirus exposure and will, ultimately, save lives.”

“Especially during the COVID-19 crisis, it’s important that health care is affordable and accessible,” Kind said. “Many Wisconsinites have relied on telehealth services throughout the pandemic to stay healthy and access the care they need. However, those who cannot use a video component during telehealth visits are currently being left behind. It’s important that we ensure all Wisconsinites are able to access these services, which is why I am proud to be an original cosponsor of this legislation.”

This legislation also ensures that providers will be adequately compensated by requiring MA plans to reimburse them for audio-only telehealth visits as if they were in-person visits unless both parties have agreed to a separate payment policy.

“Doctors and patients have been relying on innovative telehealth services to ensure access to high-quality care despite office closures and extra precautions for high-risk patients due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Walorski said. “However, even though CMS has provided additional flexibility, many Americans in rural and low-income communities still face challenges using the necessary video technology. That’s why I’m cosponsoring this commonsense, bipartisan measure to ensure Medicare Advantage patients can get the care they need by removing barriers to providing diagnoses through audio-only telehealth services.”

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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