WASHINGTON – Congressman Troy Balderson (R-OH) and Congresswoman Cindy Axne (D-IA) are continuing bipartisan efforts to expand telehealth in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pair introduced the KEEP Telehealth Options Act today, which would instruct the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study and report to United States Congress on the expansion of telehealth services during the COVID-19 outbreak, the uptake of those services by patients across the country, and GAO’s recommendations for enhancing the quality of and access to these services.
“Growing up in a rural community, I know firsthand the importance of access to quality healthcare,” said Balderson. “The coronavirus outbreak has highlighted Ohio’s need for an array of telehealth services, which have given many the ability to connect to quality care from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Congress must work to enable the permanent expansion of telehealth—as well as the rural broadband infrastructure needed to use it—so Ohioans can continue receiving quality remote care.”
The Knowing the Efficiency and Efficacy of Permanent (KEEP) Telehealth Options Act of 2020 requires HHS to conduct a comprehensive, analytic study and report to Congress on available expanded telehealth services; new provider reimbursement options; take-up of those service, including data points by demographic such as rural, minority, low-income, and elderly populations; take-up of telehealth services for mental and behavioral health care; and a review of the public health impacts of this expansion. This data is crucial in order for Congress to legislate a permanent expansion of telehealth.
The legislation also requires GAO to conduct a study and report to Congress on the efficiency, management, and successes of expanded telehealth programs under the current public health emergency (PHE), as well as identify potential fraud risks that could harm Americans. The bill requires the report from GAO to Congress to include recommendations for improvements to PHE telehealth programs in order to expand access with the goal of permanence, and to include recommendations for reducing fraud. GAO’s suggestions would help Congress incorporate tangible improvements into a permanence effort; this would help ensure all Americans – including rural Ohioans with limited resources and senior citizens often targeted by fraudulent robocalls – have the best possible set of options for safe, accessible care.
“Our doctors, nurses, specialized care administrators, and health care workers have all done a fantastic job adapting to the new normal of COVID-19, and I’m glad that we were able to get an expansion of telehealth services to protect patients and providers in these uncertain times,” said Axne. “COVID-19 has unexpectedly pulled us into a demonstration of how effective and important telehealth options are for older Iowans or those who live farther from a health center. What we have now is a golden opportunity to document how telehealth services were implemented and where improvements can be made so we can chart a path to keeping these options available for patients who won’t stop needing them when this pandemic is over.”
The KEEP Telehealth Options Act is endorsed by more than twenty organizations, including Ohio Hospital Association, Ohio Association of Community Health Centers, Ohio Children’s Hospital Association, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, American Hospital Association, National Council for Behavioral Health, American Physical Therapy Association, American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons, National Occupational Therapy Association, Alliance for Physical Therapy Quality and Innovation, American Cochlear Implant Alliance, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Association of Mature American Citizens, and The OrthoForum.
“The Ohio Hospital Association applauds Congressman Balderson’s bipartisan work to support and expand telehealth options for Ohioans; it is critical that we have a complete picture of telehealth use during the pandemic so we can assess how best to move forward with permanence,” said Scott Borgemenke, Senior Vice President of Advocacy for Ohio Hospital Association. “The KEEP Telehealth Options Act will help build the case for our hospitals and providers to continue treating all patients, even when their physical presence is not the best option.”
“Community Health Centers offer comprehensive primary and preventative health care services in areas of high need, and many have been pioneering telehealth to address geographic, economic, transportation, and linguistic barriers to health care access,” said Julie DiRossi-King, Chief Operating Officer of Ohio Association of Community Health Centers. “Community Health Centers, and the healthcare system as a whole, benefit from telehealth by increasing access to care, reducing the need for emergency room utilization, and overcoming clinical workforce shortages. OACHC commends Congressman Balderson for quickly introducing bipartisan legislation that will shine the light on the direct impact of telehealth that is transforming our health care system and increasing access to care.”
Balderson and Axne previously worked together by introducing bipartisan legislation to expand telehealth access through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to include services by physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, clinical social workers, and audiologists. H.R. 6654 would temporarily enable these types of care providers to treat patients virtually, of critical importance in Ohio as citizens practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following introduction of the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, CMS issued new guidelines that provided an expansion of telehealth services to include those offered by physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists.