Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, led a bipartisan coalition of Congress members to introduce the Ensuring Parity in MA and PACE for Audio-Only Telehealth Act. The bipartisan legislation is designed to help ensure that seniors in Medicare Advantage plan who cannot access the video component during telehealth visits are able to access care through audio visits during the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Sewell is joined in bringing this legislation by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Florida; Tony Cárdenas, D-California, Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pennsylvania, Ron Kind D-Wisconsin, Jason Smith R-Missouri, and Jackie Walorski, R-Indiana.
“More than one year since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States, the public health and economic crisis continue to disproportionately impact our rural and underserved communities,” Sewell said. “It is critically important we expand telehealth services, particularly to those in our rural areas, to reduce the risk of exposure and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. I am proud to introduce the Ensuring Parity in MA and PACE for Audio-Only Telehealth Act, which will allow those enrolled in Medicare Advantage to access audio as well as video telehealth services. This will ensure that patients 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.”
“As we recover from COVID-19, we must ensure vulnerable patients, especially our seniors and those managing chronic conditions, are able to safely and conveniently access the appropriate care management and related services they need,” Rep. Bilirakis said. “To do this, we need to empower patients and their providers with more, not less, options to accurately, safely, and conveniently capture patient health statuses.”
“As Americans adapt to this new reality of remote working and telecommunicating, it is imperative that our laws reflect the changes of this time,” said Rep. Cardenas. “Millions of seniors rely on Medicare Advantage for critical life-saving services, and as the risk for elderly Americans remains 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 save lives.”
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, older Americans and enrollees in Medicare Advantage have utilized telehealth services to access the care they need. In many instances, telehealth services can help reduce the risk of exposure for both vulnerable patient populations, like seniors, as well as health care workers,” said Rep. Fitzpatrick. “I am proud to support this bipartisan legislation that will ensure that seniors enrolled in Medicare Advantage, and who may be limited to audio-only telehealth visits, have access to more options and can continue to safely receive the care they deserve throughout this public health emergency.”
“Expanded access to telemedicine has been critical during the pandemic, especially for helping older Americans keep up with care for chronic conditions or preventative visits,” said Rep. Houlahan. “I’m proud to support this bill which ensures people in our community without access to a computer or high speed internet can still stay connected with their health care provider during this difficult time.”
“Now, more than ever before, Wisconsinites need options,” Rep. Kind said. “The COVID-19 crisis has created even more barriers for people to access the care they need to stay healthy—especially in our rural areas. Telehealth services are essential to ensuring folks are able to meet with their health care providers safely and easily. Unfortunately, those who are unable to use video features while talking to health care professionals, like those across rural Wisconsin without access to reliable high-speed internet, are being left behind. This bipartisan legislation will help ensure all seniors in Wisconsin can access these services during the ongoing pandemic and beyond.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic required the U.S. healthcare system to embrace every viable method of healthcare delivery,” said Rep. Jason Smith. “For patients in rural areas back home in Missouri, none have been more beneficial than the expansion of audio-only telehealth. I am proud to support this bipartisan legislation to ensure rural patients who lack access to adequate broadband or technology can continue to get the care they need.”
“Doctors and patients have relied on innovative telehealth services to ensure uninterrupted access to high-quality health care throughout the coronavirus crisis,” said Rep. Walorski. “However, many Americans in rural and low-income communities – especially those with limited access to high-speed internet – continue to face challenges using the necessary video technology. This commonsense, bipartisan legislation would ensure Medicare Advantage patients can get the care they need by removing barriers to providing diagnoses through audio-only telehealth services.”
Shawn Bloom is the President and CEO of the National Pace Association.
“The ability to provide care remotely has been key to keeping PACE enrollees and PACE staff safe during the pandemic,” said President Bloom. “The ability to submit diagnoses obtained through audio-only encounters during our national health emergency is key to ensuring providers are paid adequately.”
Matt Eyles is the CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans.
“Telehealth delivered by phone has been a lifeline to many seniors and people with disabilities throughout the COVID-19 crisis, either because they don’t have Internet access or because they don’t have or aren’t comfortable with video technology,” Eyles said. “This bill will ensure that Medicare enrollees are not left behind, whether they live in rural or urban settings. We applaud these Representatives for introducing this important legislation to improve health equity and ensure America’s seniors and people with disabilities have access to the care they need, when they need it, in a way that is safe and convenient for them.”
In order to help facilitate the use of telehealth among MA patients, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) 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. Sponsors say that 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.
Sponsors say that the Ensuring Parity in MA and PACE 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. Proponents argue that this legislation 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.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed 558,422 Americans to this point, has exposed the need for telehealth services and the vast inequities in broadband access.
Congresswoman Terri Sewell is in her sixth term representing Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District.