Congress extends Medicare telehealth waivers

Spending bill includes language maintaining current rules until health emergency expires

The easier access to telehealth Medicare beneficiaries have enjoyed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue for the time being, thanks to the spending package Congress recently enacted.

The $1.5 trillion omnibus bill contains language extending the telehealth waivers that have been in place since the start of the COVID public health emergency (PHE) in early 2020 until five months after the PHE has officially ended.

Congress approved the spending bill March 11 and sent it to President Biden, who is expected to sign it into law. Among other effects, extending the telehealth waivers would mean:

  • Medicare patients would still be able to receive telehealth services from any location, including their homes,
  • Physical and occupational therapists and audiologists would still be allowed to provide telehealth services,
  • Medicare would continue reimbursing providers for audio-only visits,
  • Doctors would still not be required to see patients in person before conducting a telehealth visit for mental health, and
  • Federally Qualified Health Centers and Rural Health Clinics could continue offering telehealth services, including for mental health visits

The legislation also would require the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission to study the use and costs of telehealth services among Medicare beneficiaries, as well as the effects of expanding coverage.

“We commend legislators for including critical telehealth extensions in this must-pass legislation, ensuring that patients do not fall off a ‘telehealth cliff’ immediately after the COVID-19 public health emergency ends,” Kyle Zebley, vice president, public policy for the American Telemedicine Association said in a written statement. “We look forward to this bill’s expedient passage into law.”

A federal study released in December 2021 found that telehealth visits among fee-for-service Medicare beneficiaries rose from approximately 840,000 in 2019 to nearly 52.7 million in 2020, and that 92% of beneficiaries received telehealth visits in their home—something that wasn’t allowed before the waivers took effect. Eight percent of primary care visits were telehealth during that period.

The popularity of telehealth visits has brought mounting pressure on Congress to extend the telehealth waivers even further. In January, the American Telemedicine Association and the Alliance for Connected Care, along with 336 other organizations, wrote to the House and Senate leadership urging them to keep the waivers in place through the end of 2024, then enact legislation making the waivers permanent.