- Telehealth groups are cheering after a bipartisan group of 60 senators reintroduced the CONNECT for Health Act last week, which would make pandemic-era virtual care flexibilities permanent if passed.
- It’s the second time the bill has been reintroduced in Congress as proponents of virtual care look to solidify COVID-19 gains in telehealth accessibility and use before temporary flexibilities run out at the end of 2024.
- Companion legislation has also been introduced in the House.
Permanently expanding telemedicine access has broad bipartisan support in Congress. A number of bills have been introduced to codify more telehealth protections after COVID-19, including CONNECT, which is considered the most comprehensive virtual care legislation by advocacy groups.
Since CONNECT was first introduced in 2016, a number of the bill’s original provisions have been enacted into law or adopted as policy by the CMS, including in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic as Washington threw open the doors to broader telehealth use. Then a 2022 spending package extended a number of the changes through Dec. 31, 2024, giving regulators and Congress more time to analyze telehealth efficacy in Medicare and make any desired COVID-era changes permanent.
The updated CONNECT act would permanently remove geographic restrictions on telehealth services, expand originating sites to include the home and permanently allow health centers and rural health clinics to provide telehealth. It would also remove the six-month in-person visit requirement for telemental healthcare and permanently allow telehealth restrictions to be waived during public health emergencies.
CONNECT is endorsed by more than 150 industry organizations, according to the office of Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who led reintroduction of the bill.
Telehealth groups including Telehealth Access for America, the American Telemedicine Association and the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives came out with statements applauding legislators for the bill’s reintroduction.
“Telehealth is an issue that has consistently attracted bipartisan, bicameral support and we are very encouraged at the incredibly strong Congressional show of support, to this day,” said Kyle Zebley, ATA’s head of public policy.
Proponents argue that enshrining heightened access to telehealth will preserve continuity of care while removing obstacles many patients face in accessing services, including the cost and distance of travel.
Studies suggest that older adults and people from underserved communities benefited the most from expanded telehealth access during the pandemic, and that telehealth doesn’t contribute to duplicative care, as some feared, but instead acts as a substitute. However, overall research on that is mixed, as some studies have found telehealth increases overall utilization.