Near supermajority in Senate backs telehealth’s future

Kevin B. O'Reilly , Senior News Editor

What’s the news: A bipartisan group of 60 senators has reintroduced the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act. The CONNECT for Health Act, S. 2016, will expand coverage of telehealth services through Medicare, make permanent COVID-19 telehealth flexibilities, improve health outcomes, and make it easier for patients to connect with their doctors. 

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The updated version of the CONNECT for Health Act includes new and revised provisions that will help more people access telehealth services. Reintroduction of the bill was led by Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Ben Cardin, D-Md., John Thune, R-S.D., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss.

Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Permanently remove all geographic restrictions on telehealth services and expand originating sites to include the home and, by 2025, any other site that is deemed clinically appropriate for the service.
  • Permanently allow health centers and rural health clinics to provide telehealth services.
  • Remove unnecessary in-person visit requirement for telemental health services.
  • Allow for the waiver of telehealth restrictions during public health emergencies.

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Why it’s important: Last December, Schatz, Wicker and California Rep. Mike Thompson helped secure the inclusion of provisions from the CONNECT for Health Act to the 2023 fiscal year government funding bill that temporarily extended access to expanded telehealth services. Those provisions are set to expire in 2025, making the need for permanent telehealth policy even more urgent.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has been “an integral, indispensable tool for providing patient care, and it is vital that we maintain and build on the gains made over the past few years,” said AMA President Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH. The AMA is one of more than 150 organizations supporting the bill.

“Medicare coverage of telehealth offers immense opportunities to create better access to health care for rural and other underserved communities, reduces travel time, and serves as a vital tool for patients to receive seamless care with their existing physicians,” Dr. Ehrenfeld added. “Permanently extending telehealth coverage will benefit physicians and patients far and wide, ushering in a new era of patient care. We deeply appreciate Sens. Schatz, Wicker, Cardin, Thune, Warner and Hyde-Smith for their continued leadership on the CONNECT for Health Act of 2023.”

Supporting telehealth is an essential component of the AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians.

Telehealth is critical to the future of health care, which is why the AMA continues to lead the charge to aggressively expand telehealth policy, research and resources to ensure physician practice sustainability and fair payment.

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Learn more: Data shows that telehealth provides essential access to care with nearly one-quarter of Americans accessing telehealth in the past month.

The CONNECT for Health Act was first introduced in 2016 and since then several of its provisions were enacted into law or adopted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, including the removal of restrictions on telehealth services for mental health, stroke care and home dialysis. 

Companion bipartisan legislation, H.R. 4189, has been introduced in the House by Democratic Reps. Thompson and Doris Matsui of California and Republicans David Schweikert of Arizona and Bill Johnson of Ohio. 

Visit AMA Advocacy in Action to find out what’s at stake in supporting telehealth and other advocacy priorities the AMA is actively working on. 

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