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Thune Joins Colleagues in Reintroducing Bipartisan Legislation to Expand Telehealth Access, Make Permanent Telehealth Flexibilities Available During COVID-19 Pandemic

Telehealth use among Medicare beneficiaries increased by 13,000 percent in just a month and a half during the pandemic; CONNECT For Health Act holds broad bipartisan support, most comprehensive legislation on telehealth in Congress

April 30, 2021

Washington — 

U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) this week joined Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) in leading a bipartisan group of 50 senators to reintroduce the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2021. The CONNECT for Health Act will expand coverage of telehealth services through Medicare, make permanent COVID-19 telehealth flexibilities, improve health outcomes, and make it easier for patients to safely connect with their doctors.

“South Dakotans were utilizing telehealth services long before the pandemic, and they understand the value and increased access it brings,” said Thune. “We’ve learned plenty from the pandemic, and it’s now all the more clear how important it is to continue to expand access to telehealth. I appreciate the opportunity to work with my colleagues and stakeholders on this important bill that will make it easier for patients to use telehealth.

“The last year has shown us that telehealth works, it’s popular, and it’s here to stay,” said Schatz. “Our comprehensive bill makes it easier for more people to safely get the care they need no matter where they live.”

“Telehealth is enabling more people to receive the care they need, leading to improved outcomes and lower costs,” said Wicker. “This bipartisan legislation would build on the success of telehealth in states like Mississippi to eliminate existing barriers and expand access to lifesaving care for more Americans.”

Three provisions from the CONNECT for Health Act were included in COVID-19 relief legislation to expand access to telehealth during the pandemic. As a result, telehealth has seen a sharp rise in use since the start of pandemic as patients seek to avoid traveling to hospitals and other health care settings and instead receive care at home. Data shows that the number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth services increased by about 13,000 percent in just a month and a half during the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated telehealth’s utility in delivering essential care. As we look beyond the pandemic, it is clear that telehealth will be a crucial tool in addressing health disparities for populations with diminished access to care,” said Cardin. “I’m proud to continue partnering with my colleagues on this bipartisan bill that will increase the availability of telehealth and help deliver better health care to Americans in every part of Maryland and across the country.”

“If we’ve learned anything in the past 14 months, it’s that people are better off when they’re able to see a doctor quickly, easily, and from the comfort of home. This is particularly the case for folks in rural or medically underserved communities, who may otherwise have to travel long distances to get basic medical services,” said Warner. “I’m proud to introduce this legislation, which will enable Virginians to make the most of telehealth capabilities and access the quality and affordable health care they need as soon as they need it.”

“The past year has highlighted the value of telehealth, and those benefits will increase with rapidly advancing technology,” said Hyde-Smith. “This legislation would help ensure Mississippians and Americans can continue to rely on telehealth services for easier access to affordable, quality care, even after the pandemic ends.”

In addition to Senators Schatz, Wicker, Cardin, Thune, Warner, and Hyde-Smith, the CONNECT for Health is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Angus King (I-Maine), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Chris Coons (D-Del.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), and Bill Cassidy (R-La.).

The CONNECT for Health Act was first introduced in 2016 and is considered the most comprehensive legislation on telehealth in Congress. Since 2016, several provisions of the bill were enacted into law or adopted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, including provisions to remove restrictions on telehealth services for mental health, stroke care, and home dialysis. 

The updated version of the CONNECT for Health Act builds on that progress and includes new and revised provisions that will help more people access telehealth services. Specifically, the legislation will:

  • Permanently remove all geographic restrictions on telehealth services and expand originating sites to include the home and other sites;
  • Allow health centers and rural health clinics to provide telehealth services, a provision currently in place due to the pandemic but on a temporary basis;
  • Provide the Secretary of Health and Human Services with the permanent authority to waive telehealth restrictions, a provision currently in place due to the pandemic but on a temporary basis;
  • Allow for the waiver of telehealth restrictions during public health emergencies; and
  • Require a study to learn more about how telehealth has been used during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Companion legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Representatives Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.).

The CONNECT for Health Act has the support of more than 150 organizations including AARP, America’s Essential Hospitals, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Hospital Association, American Heart Association, American Medical Association, American Medical Group Association, American Nurses Association, American Telemedicine Association, Children’s National Hospital, eHealth Initiative, Federation of American Hospitals, Health Innovation Alliance, HIMSS, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Association of Community Health Centers, National Association of Rural Health Clinics, National Rural Health Association, Personal Connected Health Alliance, and Teladoc Health.

“Our thanks go to longstanding telehealth champions Sen. Schatz, Sen. Wicker, and the 50 co-sponsors of this bipartisan bill, for their continued efforts to make access to telehealth a permanent part of care delivery in our country,” said Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA). “By ensuring Medicare beneficiaries do not lose access to telehealth after the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency ends, the CONNECT ACT protects seniors from the telehealth cliff. The ATA remains committed to working with Congress to advance swift, comprehensive policy that will explicitly ensure that everyone has access to safe, effective, and appropriate care when and where they need it, no matter where they live.”

“Federal action to expand telehealth services during the pandemic has been a lifeline that helped keep patients connected to care and allowed health centers to keep their doors open,” said Tom Van Coverden, president and CEO of the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC). “For patients on Medicare, especially people living in rural areas, without access to smart phones or reliable broadband, expanded telehealth flexibilities are essential to health and wellness.  We cannot reverse progress, especially now.  The CONNECT for Health Act ensures health centers can permanently extend these services for our Medicare population and the underserved. We are deeply grateful for the leadership of Senators Brian Schatz and Roger Wicker, as well as their colleagues on the Senate telehealth working group, in advancing this important legislation.”