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Congress Continues to Focus on Integrating Telehealth Solutions into Healthcare Delivery

On December 6, 2016, the House passed the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes Act (S. 2873) (the ECHO Act), which was unanimously passed by the Senate on November 29, 2016. The ECHO Act seeks to expand the use of health care technology and programming to connect underserved communities and populations with critical health care services.

The ECHO Act builds upon the University of New Mexico’s world-renowned Project ECHO by encouraging the broader development and use of technology-enabled collaborative learning and care delivery models by connecting specialists with multiple other health care professionals through simultaneous interactive videoconferencing for the purpose of facilitating case-based learning, disseminating best practices, and evaluating outcomes.

The ECHO Act requires the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to study technology-enabled collaborative learning and capacity building models, and the impact of those models on (1) certain health conditions (i.e., mental health and substance use disorders, chronic diseases, prenatal and maternal health, pediatric care, pain management, and palliative care), (2) health care workforce issues (e.g., specialty care shortages) and (3) public health programs.

Within two years of the enactment of the ECHO Act, the Secretary of HHS must submit a publically available report to Congress that:

  1. Analyzes the impact of technology-enabled collaborative learning and capacity building models, including, but not limited to, the impact on health care provider retention, quality of care, access to care and barriers faced by healthcare providers;
  2. Lists the technology-enabled collaborative learning and capacity building models funded by HHS over the past five years;
  3. Describes best practices used in adopting these models;
  4. Describes barriers to adoption of these models and recommends ways to reduce those barriers and opportunities to increase use of these models; and
  5. Issues recommendations regarding the role of technology-enabled collaborative learning and capacity building models in continuing medical education and lifelong learning, including the role of academic medical centers, provider organizations and community providers in such education and lifelong learning.

The recommendations made in HHS’s report may be used to integrate the Project ECHO model into health systems across the country.




Commercial Insurers Urge Congressional Budget Office to Consider their Telemedicine Data

In hopes of expanding reimbursement opportunities for telemedicine services in the Medicare program, representatives of eleven payers, including Aetna, Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, Cambia Health Solutions and Humana, asked CBO director Keith Hall in a public letter to consider their data when evaluating the impact of Medicare coverage of telemedicine services.

Medicare reimbursement for telemedicine is currently limited to very narrow set of circumstances. Section 1834(m) of the Social Security Act provides that telehealth services are covered only if the Medicare patient is seen: (a) at an approved “originating site” (e.g., physician offices, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities) that is located within a rural Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) that is either outside of a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) or in a rural census tract, or a county outside of a MSA; (b) by an approved provider (e.g., physicians, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists); (c) for a defined set of services, including consultations, office visits, pharmacological management, and individual and group diabetes self-management training services; and (d) using certain telecommunications technologies.

There are bipartisan efforts currently underway to expand Medicare reimbursement for telemedicine services by easing or eliminating some of these requirements. One example is the CONNECT for Health Act. Because coverage of telemedicine services in Medicare’s fee-for-service program is limited, there is limited Medicare data available for the CBO to consider when reviewing the potential financial impact of such legislation. In light of this lack of data, the insurers advise that the CBO should consider the effects that telemedicine’s expansion in the commercial market. The insurers’ letter to the CBO also points out that new alternative, quality-based payment models rely upon telemedicine as a means of meeting certain performance measures, and other government agencies, such as the US Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration, are using telemedicine services to provide better quality care.

Earlier this year, the CBO and MedPAC received a letter from over 20 different health care providers similarly urging it to consider alternative data sources, such as data from the commercial sector, when analyzing the costs and benefits associated with the use of telemedicine in the Medicare program.




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