Senate lawmakers have introduced a bipartisan bill, the Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act, designed to extend telehealth services to Medicare patients. Under the new law, eligible hospitals would test telehealth services through the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI). The center would then evaluate the services for cost, effectiveness and quality-of-care. Those that meet CMMI’s standards would be then be eligible for Medicare payment.
Senate sponsors, Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Gary Peters (D-MI), said the target is rural patients, who often have to travel long distances to get to a hospital or clinic, and need better access to care. In a statement, the sponsors claim the bill will encourage development of new, cost-reduction technologies that improve patient health.
Recent research concludes that telehealth is effective at reducing cost. In an analysis published by The Rural Broadband Association, telehealth services offered an annual per-facility travel expense savings of $5,718, lost wage savings of $3,431 for patients, and $20,841 for hospitals. In the case of rural hospitals, that figure is expected to exceed $100,000 per year.
Despite the cost-savings, significant hurdles remain that prevent the widespread adoption of telehealth. Chief among them are Medicare’s strict limitations on reimbursement for telehealth services. Compounding the issue is the lack of nation-wide standards for licensing telehealth providers, which is a state issue.
In spite of the challenges, health systems are offering telehealth services in growing numbers. Currently, 30% of all Medicare payments go to to alternative payment models. With the Department of Health and Human Services announcing its plans to increase that figure to 50 percent by the end of 2018, healthcare providers are on the hunt for new ways improve access to care, improve quality, and reduce costs.