On Dec. 18, just prior to the close of the 116th Congress, Reps. Jason Smith, R-Mo., and Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., introduced the Permanency for Audio-Only Telehealth Act (H.R. 9035), legislation that APA’s advocacy team helped shape. APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, commended the legislationand stressed that “audio-only telephone is a matter of health equity for underserved populations.” If passed, the legislation would allow for the use of audio-only equipment for Medicare mental and behavioral health and evaluation and management services. The legislation would also allow beneficiaries’ homes to be considered telehealth originating sites for audio-only telephone services. The bill is expected to be reintroduced in the 117th Congress, which began on Jan 3.
In addition, Congress enacted, through its end of year COVID relief and omnibus appropriations package (The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021), a permanent elimination of Medicare’s telehealth originating and geographic site restrictions for the “diagnosis, evaluation or treatment” of a mental health disorder. Permanently lifting Medicare’s originating and geographic site restrictions to allow beneficiaries to receive telemental health services at home, and no matter where they live, was an APA advocacy priority. The provision will take effect after the public health emergency ends, and a practitioner must provide an in-person service within the previous six months. Current law allows Medicare beneficiaries with a substance use or co-occurring mental health disorder to receive telehealth care at home without a prior in-person service. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, and bipartisan Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., and Tom Reed, R-N.Y., successfully led this effort through a merger of their telemental health bills.
Unfortunately, Congress did not vote to extend all existing emergency Medicare telehealth waivers through the end of 2021, as APA and other national groups had advocated for in the end of year package. The existing public health emergency ends on Jan. 20 and an extension is likely, given the ongoing pandemic. APA will continue to strongly advocate for advancing telemental and behavioral health services in the 117th Congress, including audio-only services.
For more information, contact Laurel Stine.