Lawmakers have reintroduced a bipartisan bill in Congress to make behavioral health services delivered via telemedicine more accessible to those on Medicare.
Four sponsors reintroduced the Telehealth Access to Healthcare Act. The legislation would eliminate in-person exam requirements for receiving mental health services via telehealth. It repeals 2020 legislation that expanded telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries but adds a requirement that patients be seen in person within six months of starting telehealth services. It also aligns mental health services with how addiction treatment is covered, according to the release.
Proponents of telemedicine visits often criticize regulations for in-person exams. Another parallel law, the Ryan Haight Act, has been the subject of intense debate because it requires in-person health care involving controlled substances.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in the use of telemedicine. What was once a gadget for most health systems has now led companies and governments to provide services over the internet, or not at all. As a result, the number of telehealth visits for Medicare beneficiaries increased 62-fold in 2020 and 43-fold in 2021 compared to 2019, according to the federal government report.
According to the same report, 35% of behavioral health visits were conducted via telehealth in 2021, the highest rate among the specialties examined.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in a press release: “Our efforts to expand access to telemedicine during the pandemic have shown what an important tool it is for countless Americans, especially It’s for mental health services.”
He and other bill sponsors call telemedicine a lifeline for rural patients and others who may have difficulty accessing services.
Other bill sponsors include U.S. Sens. Dr. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and John Thune (R-S.D.). Smith is a founding member of the Senate Mental Health Caucus, which was formed in October.
Addressing systemic problems in federal behavioral health regulation has been a bipartisan priority for winning in Congress. In November, the Senate Finance Committee approved the Better Mental Health Care, Low-Cost Drugs, and Extenders Act.
One of the most significant behavioral health funding reforms also comes with a rare round of gun control through the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which was passed in the wake of the massacre at Uvalde Roble Elementary School in Texas.
Behavioral health providers expect more changes in 2024 and beyond. Both leading presidential candidates have made significant regulatory changes in response to the epidemic of opioid overdose deaths. Industry leaders expect continued support for behavioral health.
Medicare is increasingly attracting attention from both newcomers and incumbents to the behavioral health field. Regulatory changes such as these may help this movement. Brightside Health announced its expansion into Medicare and Medicaid in October. The move will double the number of potential patients.
“Medicare beneficiaries and providers have come to rely on telehealth to ensure seniors receive high-quality mental health care,” said Brad Kittredge, CEO of virtual mental health startup Brightside Health. “Among the commercially insured population, telemedicine accounts for approximately 60% of all visits, making it the preferred way for people to access mental health care. Giving the Medicare population permanent access to health care should be a no-brainer.”
Talkspace Inc. (NASDAQ: TALK ), one of the pioneers in technology-focused virtual mental health services, particularly text therapy, announced this month that it will be available in Medicare and Medicare Advantage.