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Healthcare IT News: Bipartisan House bill proposes permanent telehealth benefits

Andrea Fox, Healthcare IT News

The legislation seeks to offer workers stand-alone telehealth benefits, similar to dental and vision plans.

The Telehealth Benefit Expansion for Workers Act would amend the Public Health Service Act, the Employee Retirement Income and Security Act of 1974 and the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow employers to treat benefits for telehealth services like excepted benefits.

The bill aims to keep stand-alone telehealth benefits separate, not as a replacement of medical plans, offering them under a group health plan or group health insurance coverage as excepted benefits.

An excepted benefit allows employers to finance additional medical care, like vision or dental coverage, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services FAQs for insurance agents and brokers, requiring Congress to amend previous public health and funding laws.

In an announcement about the bipartisan bill, Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Washington, says she and her co-sponsors – Tim Walberg, D-Michigan, Angie Craig, D-Minnesota, Ron Estes, R-Kansas, Mikie Sherrill, D-New Jersey and Rick Allen, R-Georgia – are looking to fill a much-needed gap for workers who lack affordable healthcare access.

They also say they want and ensure that patients can connect with healthcare providers from home and on their schedules.

"Even as businesses return to more in-person work, we should not turn our backs on successful telehealth programs that benefited workers in Washington state and across the country," said DelBene.

Walberg added that expanded telehealth services will help address health equity in underserved areas.

"The pandemic revealed how telehealth is a critical tool to ensure that Americans can receive timely, quality and affordable care from their own home," he said.

The extension to offer telehealth in high-deductible health plans with health savings accounts included in the final Congressional legislative package of 2022 has opened a new window to pursue making the changes permanent, according to Tom Leary, senior vice president and head of government relations at HIMSS, the non-profit parent company of Healthcare IT News.

In addition to improving access, telehealth reduces burdens on healthcare providers. It has been a priority for HIMSS for many years, Leary said during a conversation about making telehealth's case for cost control and other 2023 priorities.

The member organization was one of many healthcare stakeholders that widely advocated for the omnibus appropriations bill to include a two-year extension for Medicare telehealth flexibilities authorized when the COVID-19 public health emergency was declared.

"We asked Congress and they listened. We are truly grateful for their staunch support of telehealth," said Kyle Zebley, senior vice president for public policy at the American Telemedicine Association and executive director of ATA Action in a statement last month.

"Even as businesses return to more in-person work, we should not turn our backs on successful telehealth programs that benefited workers in Washington state and across the country,” said DelBene.

"Everyone – regardless of where they live – should be able to access quality care when and where they need it," she said.

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