A bipartisan group of senators this week introduced the Telemental Healthcare Access Act of 2021, geared toward reducing hurdles to providing virtual behavioral health services.
The bill, introduced by Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Tina Smith, D-Minn., Ben Cardin, D-Md., and John Thune, R-S.D., would remove the statutory requirement that Medicare beneficiaries be seen in person within six months of receiving mental health services through telehealth.
“Over the pandemic, we’ve seen an increased need for telehealth services, whether it’s for substance use disorders, physical ailments or mental health issues,” said Cassidy in a statement.
“Medicare patients deserve direct access to telemental health services, and this bill removes barriers, to make this possible,” he said.
WHY IT MATTERS
Virtual behavioral health has been particularly successful during the COVID-19 pandemic, with demand ratcheting up amidst the crisis.
As a press statement from Cassidy’s office notes, the end-of-year package passed by Congress this past year allowed Medicare behavioral health patients to be treated in their home and other sites for mental health services.
However, it enacted an in-person requirement for such patients before they could receive telemental care.
The legislation proposed this week would eliminate that requirement, as well as calling for a study and report on utilization of mental health services provided via telehealth to be submitted to Congress no later than one year after the end of the public health emergency.
“During the pandemic, telehealth helped [ease] Americans’ fears by allowing them to avoid the risk of visiting a hospital or clinic,” said Smith.
“Now we have the opportunity to build on this success by passing our bipartisan bill to make sure Medicare patients are able to access telemental health services without additional barriers,” she said.
Advocates cheered the bill, calling it “critical.”
“The ATA strongly opposes statutory in-person requirements as they create arbitrary and clinically unsupported barriers to accessing affordable, quality healthcare,” said Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, in a statement.
“Requirements such as these could negatively impact those in underserved communities who may not be able to have an in-person exam,” she continued.
“Passing this legislation, and ensuring this unnecessary requirement is not repeated for other services, along with other pieces of legislation that make the telehealth waivers permanent, could not be a higher priority for the ATA and our members,” she added.
“The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention commends Senators Bill Cassidy, Tina Smith, Ben Cardin and John Thune for ensuring expansions of telemental health … work to encourage help-seeking for older adults, rather than create barriers to timely mental health care,” said Laurel Stine, senior vice president for public policy for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
THE LARGER TREND
The past few months have seen a flurry of pro-telehealth legislation in Congress, as elected officials seem to recognize the looming “telehealth cliff” that would reinstate currently relaxed regulations.
Just this past week, a bipartisan group of senators also introduced the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act, aimed at ensuring underserved community health providers are able to continue accessing virtual care beyond the end of the public health emergency.
That bill followed the much-ballyhooed CONNECT for Health Act, which would also expand telehealth access and which had the support of half the Senate.
ON THE RECORD
“The past year and a half has taken an immense toll on the mental health of millions of Americans,” said Thune in a statement. “It has proven that telemental health services are even more critical than we had previously imagined.
“We must ensure that these potentially lifesaving services continue to be available after the pandemic ends,” he added.