House bill would augment federal involvement in telemedicine

Access to telemedicine services within Medicare, Medicaid and several other federal programs would increase under provisions of a new bill introduced Dec. 30 in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Telehealth Promotion Act of 2012 (H.R. 6719), sponsored by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA), would increase federal support and payments for telehealth services nationwide. The bill would establish a federal reimbursement policy, wherein “no [medical] benefit covered shall be excluded solely because it is furnished via a telecommunications system.”

In addition to removing coverage restrictions to telemedicine, the bill would provide a new federal standard for medical licensure, officials add. Consistent with legislation already passed by Congress for military healthcare, providers in all federal health plans would only need to be licensed in the state of their physical location and would be free to treat eligible patients anywhere in the nation.

“This is a major step forward in Congressional support for telemedicine and would extend the benefits of telehealth and mHealth to nearly 75 million Americans,” said Jonathan Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association. “Representative Thompson clearly understands that telemedicine is a value — for patients, for the government and for the American taxpayer. We encourage other legislators to support this win-win bill, which will improve healthcare and decrease federal health expenditures.”

The bill also proposes a series of improvements to existing Medicare and Medicaid programs, all of which would significantly augment the role and impact of telemedicine, according to bill proponents. Those changes include:

  • Incentivizing hospitals to lower readmissions with telemedicine, by offering them a share of the total cost savings.
  • Expanding the “medical home” coordinated-care option.
  • Exempting accountable care organizations (ACOs) from telehealth fee-for-service restrictions and allowing ACOs to use telemedicine as an equivalent substitute for in-person care.
  • Launching new pilot programs for remote patient monitoring for up to 10 HHS-designated conditions.
  • Adjusting reimbursement timelines for home health to better facilitate remote patient monitoring.
  • Creating a telemedicine service option in Medicaid to treat high-risk pregnancies.

“This bill represents a panacea for federal involvement in telemedicine, eliminating archaic barriers and expanding opportunities for remote healthcare. If passed, this bill will almost instantly make our federally funded health system more effective and more efficient,” said Linkous.

Although proponents of the bill claim it should reduce federal expenditures in the long run, there are other members of Congress who argue that this is not the time for which additional expenditures should be allocated, considering the U.S. national debt now exceeds $16.3 trillion.

"The federal government has a spending problem that has led to a $16 trillion national debt that threatens our country's future," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in a Jan.1 press release. "Now the focus turns to spending."

For Boehner and other members of Congress, spending cuts will be instrumental in alleviating the debt crisis, not increasing payments to federal programs. The need for Congress to get its fiscal house in order, as many claim to be the more pressing issue, may ultimately hamper the success of the telemedicine bill.

The bill was referred to a House subcommittee on Dec. 30.