April 30, 2021

Warner & Kaine Reintroduce Legislation to Expand Telehealth Services amid COVID-19 Crisis

~ Bipartisan CONNECT for Health Act will make it easier for Virginians to access health care providers ~

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA), along with Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS), Ben Cardin (D-MD), John Thune (R-SD), and Roger Wicker (R-MS) reintroduced the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2021. The CONNECT for Health Act will expand coverage of telehealth services through Medicare, make permanent COVID-19 telehealth flexibilities, improve health outcomes, and make it easier for patients to safely connect with their doctors. 

“If we’ve learned anything in the past 14 months, it’s that people are better off when they’re able to see a doctor quickly, easily, and from the comfort of home. This is particularly the case for folks in rural or medically underserved communities, who may otherwise have to travel long distances to get basic medical services,” said Sen. Warner. “I’m proud to introduce this legislation, which will enable Virginians to make the most of telehealth capabilities and access the quality and affordable health care they need as soon as they need it.”

“Over the last year, telehealth has been crucial to safely delivering care to underserved communities,” said Sen. Kaine. “As we begin to recover and rebuild our nation, we should be making it easier for Americans to access quality health care. The permanent expansion of telehealth coverage would do just that, so I am proud to cosponsor this bipartisan effort.” 

Several provisions from the CONNECT for Health Act were included in COVID-19 relief legislation to expand access to telehealth during the pandemic and fund its implementation. As a result, telehealth has seen a sharp rise in use since the start of pandemic as patients seek to avoid traveling to hospitals and other health care settings and instead receive care at home. Data shows that the number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services increased by about 13,000 percent in just a month and a half during the pandemic.

The CONNECT for Health Act was first introduced in 2016 and is considered the most comprehensive legislation on telehealth in Congress. Since 2016, several provisions of the bill were enacted into law or adopted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, including provisions to remove restrictions on telehealth services for mental health, stroke care, and home dialysis. 

The updated version of the CONNECT for Health Act builds on that progress and includes new and revised provisions that will help more people access telehealth services. Specifically, the legislation would: 

  • Permanently remove all geographic restrictions on telehealth services and expand originating sites to include the home and other sites;
  • Allow health centers and rural health clinics to provide telehealth services, a provision currently in place due to the pandemic but on a temporary basis;
  • Provide the Secretary of Health and Human Services with the permanent authority to waive telehealth restrictions, a provision currently in place due to the pandemic but on a temporary basis;
  • Allow for the waiver of telehealth restrictions during public health emergencies; and
  • Require a study to learn more about how telehealth has been used during the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

Companion legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Mike Thompson (D-CA), David Schweikert (R-AZ), Peter Welch (D-VT), Bill Johnson (R-OH), and Doris Matsui (D-CA).

The CONNECT for Health Act has the support of more than 150 organizations including AARP, America’s Essential Hospitals, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Hospital Association, American Heart Association, American Medical Association, American Medical Group Association, American Nurses Association, American Telemedicine Association, Children’s National Hospital, eHealth Initiative, Federation of American Hospitals, Health Innovation Alliance, HIMSS, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Association of Community Health Centers, National Association of Rural Health Clinics, National Rural Health Association, Personal Connected Health Alliance, and Teladoc Health. 

“To build on the important actions taken during the COVID-19 public health emergency, to prepare us for any future public health emergency and to ensure that providers and patients do not lose access to telehealth supported care when the COVID-19 emergency concludes, Congress must act to advance telehealth payment reform, particularly through Medicare. I am grateful that the CONNECT for Health Act of 2021 does just that,” said Dr. Karen Rheuban, Director of the UVA Center for Telehealth.

Sen. Warner, an original cosponsor of the 2016 CONNECT for Health Act, and Sen. Kaine have been longtime advocates for increased access to health care through telehealth. Last year, during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the Senators sent a letter to Senate leadership calling for the permanent expansion of access to telehealth services. In 2018, Sen. Warner successfully included a provision to expand telehealth services for substance abuse treatment in the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018. In 2003, then-Gov. Warner expanded Medicaid coverage for telemedicine statewide, including evaluation and management visits, a range of individual psychotherapies, the full range of consultations, and some clinical services, including in cardiology and obstetrics. Coverage was also expanded to include non-physician providers. Among other benefits, the telehealth expansion allowed individuals in medically underserved and remote areas of Virginia to access quality specialty care that isn’t always available at home.

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