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Spending Bill to Extend Telehealth, Hospital-at-Home Waivers for 2 Years

Anuja Vaidya

December 20, 2022

The year-end package includes two-year extensions for Medicare telehealth flexibilities enacted during the pandemic and the Acute Hospital Care at Home Program.

The year-end $1.7 trillion spending bill includes provisions to extend pandemic-era telehealth and hospital-at-home waivers for two years.

The legislation, released Tuesday, aims to avert a government shutdown and includes several healthcare provisions, including reducing the 2023 Medicare payment cuts to 2 percent from 4.5 percent.

In a win for telehealth proponents, the sweeping bill also includes a two-year extension of telehealth-related regulatory flexibilities for Medicare beneficiaries put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. A previous bill extended these flexibilities for five months after the public health emergency expires.

Now, the waivers will remain in place through Dec. 31, 2024, if the legislation passes both the House and Senate and is enacted into law.

The flexibilities include eliminating geographic restrictions on originating sites for telehealth services, enabling Medicare beneficiaries to receive services from any location, and allowing federally qualified health centers and rural health centers to continue providing telehealth services.

Further, the waivers lift the initial in-person care requirements for those receiving mental healthcare through telehealth and allow for continued coverage of audio-only telehealth services.

In addition to extending the Medicare telehealth waivers, the new legislation includes a two-year extension of the Acute Hospital Care at Home Program. Introduced in November 2020 by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Acute Hospital Care at Home Program allows treatment for common acute conditions in home settings. As of Dec. 16, 259 hospitals across 37 states were participating in the program.

The safe harbor for telehealth coverage for those with high deductible health plans (HDHPs) with health savings accounts (HSAs) will also be extended by two years if the new bill passes. The safe harbor provision enables people with HDHP-HSAs to receive telehealth coverage without meeting their annual deductible first.

"Today, our Congressional telehealth champions on both sides of the aisle came through for the American people and for ATA and ATA Action members, by meeting our plea for more certainty around telehealth access for the next two years, while we continue to work with policymakers to make telehealth access a permanent part of our healthcare delivery for the future," said Kyle Zebley, senior vice president of public policy at American Telemedicine Association and executive director of the association's advocacy arm, ATA Action, in an emailed press release.

But the new legislation does not include a similar two-year extension for the waiver of the Ryan Haight Act.

The Ryan Haight Act of 2008 required providers to meet with a patient in person before being allowed to prescribe controlled substances for that person via telehealth. The in-person visit requirement was temporarily lifted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since then, several stakeholders, including the American Telemedicine Association and American Psychiatric Association, have asked that Congress permanently eliminate the Ryan Haight Act.

The latest spending bill does, however, direct the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to create final regulations regarding the circumstances under which a special registration for telemedicine may be issued. Providers obtaining a special registration for telemedicine would be allowed to waive the in-person visit requirement.

Earlier this month, the American Hospital Association had also asked that the DEA clarify regulations for the special registration process and provide recommendations for an interim plan.

"…the hard work continues, as we persist in pressing telehealth permanency and creating a lasting roadblock to the 'telehealth cliff,'" said Zebley. "Additionally, we will continue to work with Congress and the Biden administration to make sure that a predictable and preventable public health crisis never occurs by giving needed certainty to the huge number of Americans relying on the clinically appropriate care achieved through the Ryan Haight in-person waiver."

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