Australia continues expanded telehealth coverage until December 31, 2021

The Australian government appropriated an additional AUS$114 million to extend coverage of telehealth services until the end of calendar year 2021. Expanded telehealth coverage had originally been scheduled to expire on June 30, 2021.

FCC will start accepting telehealth grant applications on April 29

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced that applications for grants through the COVID-19 Telehealth Program will be accepted beginning on Thursday, April 29, 2021 at noon. The filing window will be open for seven calendar days. Funding available in Round 2 is a total of $249.95 million. As explained in our prior article, applications will be prioritized according to the metrics announced by the FCC.

FCC opens new round of telehealth grants

On March 30, 2021, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a second round of funding for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program (the Program). The Consolidated Appropriations Act enacted in December 2020 appropriated $249.95 million for the Program, in addition to the $200 million which had been awarded in Round 1. There are substantial changes in procedures for Round 2 in comparison to Round 1. Rather than accepting applications on a rolling basis, the FCC will establish a seven-day application window. The FCC has established metrics to be followed for prioritizing and evaluating applications, and has announced the intention to fund applicants from each state and territory to the extent feasible. Finally, the new procedures will include a process for notifying a potentially unsuccessful applicant of the intent to deny its application, allowing the applicant to submit additional information.

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MedPAC recommends temporary retention of some telehealth coverage after the pandemic

In its most recent report to Congress on Medicare payment policy, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) recommended that some of the expansions to Medicare coverage of telehealth instituted during the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) be retained for one to two years after the PHE ends, so that the impact of telehealth on access, quality and cost can be assessed. MedPAC recommends that after the end of the PHE, Medicare should return to paying the facility rate for telehealth services, and no longer permit providers to reduce or waive cost sharing for beneficiaries. Also, it recommends that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should implement safeguards to protect against potential fraud relating to telehealth.

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Congressional hearing highlights potential and risks for telehealth

The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy & Commerce held a hearing on March 2 on “The Future of Telehealth: How COVID-19 is Changing the Delivery of Virtual Care.” Opening statements by Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and chair of the Health Subcommittee Anna G. Eschoo (D-CA) noted that access to telehealth for Medicare beneficiaries had been greatly expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising the question of whether Medicare coverage should be extended permanently. Chairman Pallone commented that in considering a permanent expansion of Medicare coverage for telehealth, essential considerations will include how to encourage the use of high-value care while discouraging low-value care and overutilization; strengthening program integrity to combat fraud; and ensuring equitable access to telehealth across the digital divide that affects many Americans. Representative Eschoo suggested that telehealth can help address shortages of some medical specialties and racial disparities in health outcomes.

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CMS may extend coverage for some telehealth services beyond the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency

Back in March 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) added several services to the Medicare telehealth services list for the duration of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE).  Extending coverage of telehealth services was deemed necessary during the pandemic in order to lessen risk of exposure for patients and health care providers while maintaining access to services. In the proposed rule for the calendar year 2021 physician fee schedule, published in the Federal Register on August 17, 2020, CMS requested public comment on extending coverage for certain telehealth services through December 31, 2021, or permanently. 

 

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U.S. Dept. of Agriculture funds rural telemedicine projects

On February 25, 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced over $42 million in funding for 86 telemedicine and distance learning projects in rural areas. Distance learning projects included funding for medical and nursing education (such as $789,150 for distance learning for family medicine residency programs in Alabama, and $879,173 to allow the Mississippi Board of Nursing to establish a distance learning network). Telemedicine projects included funding for the University of Alabama to connect 23 ambulances and seven hospitals in eight rural counties; a telemedicine system to deliver medical and behavioral services, including treatment of substance abuse disorders, in nine counties in rural Arkansas; distance learning and telemedicine equipment to connect the Morehouse School of Medicine to hubs in west central Georgia; and a telemedicine system connecting five rural hospitals and other providers with specialists at Saint Joseph Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.

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