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Medicare Rights Center Urges Caution When Weighing Permanent Changes to Medicare Telehealth

April 10, 2024  
•  Press Releases

–Medicare Rights President Testifies at Congressional Health Subcommittee–

Washington, DC—The COVID-19 outbreak spurred significant changes in Medicare telehealth. Early in the pandemic, it was clear that Medicare beneficiaries were at high risk. Policymakers responded quickly, temporarily easing access to Medicare telehealth services.

Though initially set to expire with the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) period, Congress extended many of these policies through the end of 2024 to allow time for data collection and deliberate policymaking.

Today, Fred Riccardi, president of the Medicare Rights Center—a national, nonprofit consumer service organization that works to ensure access to affordable health care for older adults and people with disabilities—testified at a hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Energy & Commerce, Subcommittee on Health, titled Legislative Proposals To Support Patient Access To Telehealth Services. Today’s hearing features 15 bills before the Committee that seek to make some or all of those flexibilities permanent.

“The COVID-related changes represent the biggest shift in Medicare telehealth since those services were created over 25 years ago. This rapid pandemic response helped many beneficiaries safely and responsibly obtain needed care during an unprecedented time, protecting patients, providers, caregivers, and communities,” said Mr. Riccardi.

Not all beneficiary experiences have been positive, and the value of these telehealth services and their impact on health care disparities also remain largely unexamined—though existing research suggests quality gaps between in-person and remote care, as well as inequities in telemedicine access across a range of demographic and geographic factors.

Since the PHE flexibilities have been in place, some callers to Medicare Rights’ national helpline have reported greater access to care, while others have faced new or heightened barriers and have been left behind.

As a result, broadly extending the PHE telehealth system should be preceded by needed updates, such as requirements for additional information gathering, service oversight, and beneficiary protections.

“To be clear, we do not support a return to the overly restrictive pre-pandemic treatment of Medicare telehealth services. We are, however, unconvinced that the flexibilities and lack of enforcement necessary during the PHE, a highly-specific time of crisis, will best serve beneficiaries and Medicare long term,” said Mr. Riccardi.

Congress has a generational opportunity to strengthen Medicare telehealth for millions of current and future beneficiaries. Medicare Rights encourages a thoughtful and evidence-based policymaking approach that centers people with Medicare and weighs not only the experiences of the past four years, but also the promises and perils of telehealth going forward.

To support these efforts, Mr. Riccardi outlined a set of principles in his testimony for lawmakers to consider as they look for consensus solutions this year. Medicare Rights recommends prioritizing telehealth policies that:

  1. meaningfully increase access,
  2. promote health equity,
  3. include robust consumer protections and oversight, and
  4. drive high-quality care.

Adhering to these goals will best ensure a system that works for all people with Medicare, regardless of where they live, the coverage pathway they choose, or how they prefer to receive care.

“Our recommendations are rooted in 35 years of experience helping people understand and navigate Medicare and are intended to support lawmaker efforts to shape the future of Medicare telehealth,” said Mr. Riccardi.

Read the full testimony here.

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About Medicare Rights
The Medicare Rights Center, a national nonprofit consumer service organization that works to ensure access to affordable health care for older adults and people with disabilities.

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