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House passes bill to extend COVID-19-related telehealth services

House lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelming passed legislation to extend telehealth services. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
House lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelming passed legislation to extend telehealth services. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

July 27 (UPI) -- Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation to extend telehealth services that were first implemented amid the COVID-19 pandemic with sights on eventually making them a permanent feature of the healthcare system.

H.R. 4040, also known as the Advancing Telehealth Beyond COVID-19 Act, passed the House 416-12 with 11 Republicans and one Democrat voting against.

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The bill, if passed by the Senate and signed by President Joe Biden, will extend telehealth services implemented in March of 2020 under Medicare until Dec. 31, 2024.

Telehealth services were scheduled to expire five months after the pandemic health emergency is declared over.

Under the two-year extension, geographic restrictions will be removed and originating sites, meaning the location where an individual receives the service, will be expanded in order to increase access.

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Services via telehealth will also be expanded and mental health services will be offered for up to six months without an in-person meeting.

The bill will also allow for Medicare reimbursement for telehealth services provided by federal physicians and practitioners, access to be expended for hospice care during an emergency period and audio-only telehelath services to be provided so seniors and those who lack Internet connectivity may have access.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who sponsored the bill, said during the debate on the house floor that it is important legislation because they know "it's vital" that Medicare adapt to innovation and medical technology.

"In Wyoming especially, we know how important this is, how important telehealth access is," she said. "Many of our citizens live hours, hundreds of miles away, from their closest medical provider."

She added that while the House will continue to have wide-ranging debates on healthcare there is bipartisan agreement that all citizens should have access to high-quality care.

"That needs to be a top priority. This bill does just that by allowing more Americans to utilize telehealth services," she said.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who is also a sponsor of the bill, cheered its passing in a statement, saying they cannot allow people who have come to rely upon telehealth during the pandemic to have the services pulled out from under them.

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"This legislation brings us one step closer to permanently expanding telehealth services and allowing Americans to continue to access critical healthcare from the comfort of their home," she said.

While a large swath of Republicans voiced support for telehealthcare, some had objections to the legislation itself.

Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., who voted in favor of the bill, said the Democrats should have sought to make it permanent, while chastising her colleagues across the aisle for skipping Republican input on it by not proceeding through the committee process.

"I know many members will be supporting this bill, but I still must mention this missed opportunity to strengthen healthcare and telehealth," she said.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., the chairman of the House committee on energy and commerce, told the floor that he wants to make it a permanent healthcare feature down the road.

The extension, he said, will provide beneficiaries and stakeholders with more certainty while also giving policymakers more time to assess the impact of expanding telehealth services on the Medicare program and on citizens' health and well being.

"I look forward to working with all members on a permanent solution to address telehealth coverage under Medicare, but in the meantime, this multi-year extension is critical for preserving access to telehealth services," he said.

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