“Telehealth saves money and helps save lives. By expanding telehealth services, we can make sure the best care and the best treatments are available to all Americans, no matter where they live.”

With those words, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) introduced forward-looking, bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by himself and Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) — the Medicare Telehealth Parity Act of 2014. The Act proposes a three-phase rollout of changes to the way that telemedicine services are reimbursed by Medicare and expands coverage not only for residents of rural areas, but urban areas as well.

  • Phase 1: This phase expands the availability and use of video conferencing and store-and-forward technologies (e.g., video, data, radiology images) to all federally qualified health centers, rural health clinics, and in counties within Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) with populations fewer than 50,000. This includes “walk-in retail health clinics.” Additionally, the bill expands telehealth coverage for services provided by certified diabetes educators, speech language therapists, audiologists, respiratory therapists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists. Finally, this phase includes coverage for remote patient monitoring (RPM) of certain chronic health conditions, including diabetes, congestive heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Phase 2: This phase expands coverage of video conferencing and store-and-forward technologies (e.g., video, data, radiology images) to MSAs with populations between 50,000 – 100,000. It also introduces coverage for services provided at a “home telehealth site.”
  • Phase 3: This phase expands coverage of video conferencing and store-and-forward technologies (e.g., video, data, radiology images) to metropolitan statistical areas with populations greater than 100,000. It also expands coverage for to include “walk-in retail health clinics” located in MSAs with populations greater than 100,000.

Each phase represents a two-year period. The phased approach is supported by both the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), and may seem more palatable to legislators, providers, and patients.

Rep. Thompson himself is no stranger to telemedicine legislation, having introduced the Medicare Telehealth Parity Act back in 2012. That bill proposed to amend the Social Security Act to cover telemedicine services for instances in which corresponding in-person treatment would be covered. However, that bill died in committee.

As of this post date, the Medicare Telehealth Parity Act of 2014 bill is sitting with the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. According to govtrack.us, the Act’s prognosis is not stellar. Generally, only 11 percent of bills make it out of committee, and of those, only three percent were enacted from 2011-2013. That said, the Act represents continued progress towards expanded telehealth reimbursement, reflecting increasing support for telehealth among federal lawmakers. Telehealth companies should recognize the importance of this Act, as it constitutes an opportunity for them to contribute their voice and help shape public policy on telehealth reimbursement.