The possibility that Medicare payment for telehealth services delivered by PTs and PTAs could be made permanent is back on the table, courtesy of an APTA-endorsed bipartisan bill that has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. If passed into law, the change would represent a milestone achievement for APTA, whose advocacy for PTs and PTAs to be included in telehealth allowances predates the COVID-19 pandemic, when temporary waivers were introduced.
Known as the Expanded Telehealth Access Act (H.R. 3875), the bill is sponsored by Reps. Diana Harshbarger, R-Tenn., and Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J. The legislation mirrors the language of a bill introduced in the last session of Congress, which was not taken up in time before their adjournment in December. Instead, Congress extended the current temporary ability of therapists to use telehealth under Medicare until Dec. 31, 2024, to provide more time to formulate a permanent telehealth policy.
Once again, APTA is urging all PTs, PTAs, students, patients, and other supporters to contact members of Congress by way of the APTA Patient Action Center to voice their support for the new bill.
As in its previous incarnation, the bill would instruct the U.S Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to permanently adopt the temporary waiver of restrictions on payment for telehealth delivered by PTs and PTAs, occupational therapists, occupational therapy assistants, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists. The Secretary of Health and Human Services also would be allowed to further expand the list of authorized telehealth providers.
Harshbarger says there's no time to waste.
“It is critical that Congress acts to allow seniors to continue [telehealth] services permanently after special waivers expire in 2024," Harshbarger said in a statement. "This is especially important for people living in rural and underserved areas, where a trip to seek specific treatments may entail a long journey. This bill will enable seniors to continue receiving quality, accessible care, delivered in the most efficient way possible.”
In a press release announcing the bill's introduction, Sherrill described the therapy provided through telehealth as a "lifeline," stating that "while the public health emergency is over, the need for telehealth services is not."
APTA President Roger Herr, PT, MPA, applauded the bill on behalf of the association. "The use of telehealth during the pandemic helped ensure patient access to physical therapist services and provided an option for therapy clinics and their patients," Herr said in an APTA news release. "It is critical that Congress make this option for therapy services permanent for Medicare patients."
If the success of telehealth provided by PTs and PTAs during the public health emergency helped build the momentum for a permanent fix, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' recent misinterpretation of the telehealth extension provided by Congress after the end of the PHE put even more wind in the sails, according to Steve Kline, APTA congressional affairs specialist.
"While APTA was pleased that CMS corrected their misinterpretation, it points to why we need a permanent telehealth policy under Medicare," Kline said. "We've always known PTs and PTAs could make significant contributions in the telehealth space, and the public health emergency proved that to be true. Now it's time for CMS to be granted the ability to embrace that reality."
It's time to make telehealth a permanent option for PTs and PTAs. APTA makes it easy to add your voice to the effort: PTs, PTAs, students, patients, and others can send messages to lawmakers by way of the APTA Patient Action Center. Just follow the instructions for contacting members of Congress.