From Amazon to Zocdoc, health industry urges passage of telemedicine bill

More than 370 companies, hospitals and healthcare organizations are urging Congress to extend waivers for virtual care.

Before the 117th Congress ends in January, healthcare advocates are pressing lawmakers to approve legislation that will allow hospitals and health systems to continue offering telehealth services.

Now, 375 companies, healthcare organizations and hospitals have signed a joint letter urging Senate leaders to act. The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) helped lead the effort.

“Virtual care is now a fundamental part of the U.S. healthcare system, and it will improve patient access to high quality care and strengthen continuity of care well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Sept. 13 letter states. “While many of the most compelling clinical use cases for virtual care are only now emerging, more communities than ever have experienced the powerful impact telehealth has had in bridging gaps in care.”

Some leading companies that are becoming bigger players in healthcare delivery have signed the letter, including Amazon, CVS Health, Google and Walmart.

Advocacy groups like the American Telemedicine Association, the American Medical Association, and the Medical Group Management Association also were among those who signed it, along with companies such as Amwell and Zocdoc.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington eased restrictions on telehealth, and virtual care surged like never before. However, those telehealth waivers are largely tied to the federal government’s public health emergency.

In the spring, Congress and President Biden agreed to a five-month extension of telehealth waivers beyond the end of the public health emergency, which currently runs until mid-October. It’s widely expected the public health emergency will continue into January. Biden administration officials have said they would give 60 days notice before ending the emergency.

Lawmakers have proposed a bill that would extend telehealth waivers through the end of 2024. The House passed the bill overwhelmingly with a 416-12 vote.

While there is broad and bipartisan support in the Senate, advocates have said it’s not a slam dunk that the Senate will pass the bill. Part of the reason is there’s not too much time left in the congressional session, and the mid-term elections will command a great deal of attention from lawmakers.

In the letter, the health groups implored the Senate to pass the bill for an extension of telehealth waivers through at least 2024.

Ultimately, they’re looking for a permanent extension of the waivers.

“The Senate should act to pass a two-year extension of these important telehealth policies, while continuing to push for a permanent extension, that includes provisions to lift provider and patient location limitations, remove in-person requirements for telemental health, ensure continued access to clinically appropriate controlled substances without in-person requirements, and increase access to telehealth services in the commercial market,” the letter stated.

Hospitals have also asked lawmakers to extend the telehealth waivers, which they said are especially critical as many hospitals have negative operating margins due to the costs of the pandemic.

Healthcare advocates have been pushing the growing evidence of the merits of telemedicine. Federal researchers recently found patients using telehealth had a lower risk of overdoses requiring medical treatment.

The researchers also said the study underscores the value of virtual care and pushed for its expansion in substance use treatment and behavioral health.

Healthcare groups are also pushing for telehealth extensions to deal with the ongoing shortage of clinicians across the industry.

Hal Wolf, president and CEO of HIMSS, told Chief Healthcare Executive recently that telemedicine is going to be increasingly important to maximize resources and expand healthcare to underserved groups.

“Even if you wanted to build all the hospitals and clinics you could, you can’t staff them,” Wolf said. “So digital health will be significantly important in delivering health equity, and sharing centers of excellence and sharing information.”

Kyle Zebley of the American Telemedicine Association recently spoke with Chief Healthcare Executive about the telehealth bill. See excerpts of our interview in this video.