Expanded Telehealth Access, Without Unnecessary Restrictions, Benefits Patients & Providers 

Jun 25, 2024

In 2022, Congress passed, and the President signed into law a two-year extension of the critical telehealth flexibilities originally implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic through public health emergency (PHE) waivers. These flexibilities lifted restrictions on telehealth that limited access to telehealth for patients nationwide. In fact, access to healthcare drastically increased with the lifted restrictions on telehealth – at the beginning of the pandemic, telehealth visits increased from about 5 million to more than 53 million among Medicare recipients alone. 

Unfortunately, these flexibilities expire at the end of this year. Without additional action from Congress to make these flexibilities permanent, or at least extended for two more years, millions of Americans could face another telehealth cliff. Enacting permanent virtual care protections without added and unnecessary restrictions is crucial in expanding health care access, as restrictions would undermine the full promise of telehealth for consumers.

The COVID-19 PHE telehealth waiver removed the geographic and originating site restrictions to allow providers to serve patients in all areas of the country and in all settings including at home. This greatly expands the pool of eligible physicians and specialists that patients have access to and allows patients to have more choices when it comes to choosing the right provider for them. The current telehealth flexibilities also override the previous requirement for patients to have a pre-existing, in-person relationship with their provider, widening the pool of eligible physicians even further. 

Another key change in restrictions that the current telehealth flexibilities allow for are audio-only phone telehealth visits. These types of appointments are critical for patients living in rural and remote areas with limited access to a strong, broadband internet connection and patients who simply cannot afford video-permitting devices such as laptops. Current telehealth protections greatly expand care access to patients who rely on these audio-only visits to communicate with their providers, and without an extension of these flexibilities these patients are at risk of losing access to the care they need.

The COVID-19 PHE waivers also expanded the list of telehealth services covered by Medicare by more than 120 different services. Losing access to these services by placing arduous restrictions would be put millions of Americans care at risk. 

That is why Congress must act to protect access to telehealth, including audio-only, by passing an extension of critical flexibilities, without onerous restrictions that would undermine the full promise of virtual care for patients.

Such an extension must be free of burdensome requirements, like mandatory in-person visits, that would curtail the immense value of telehealth for patients as a convenient, affordable way to access high-quality care, achieve better health outcomes and overcome traditional barriers to care. 

Lawmakers should enact permanent policy to protect access to telehealth but must, at a minimum, extend current flexibilities by at least two years. An extension of less than two years would risk disruption to the virtual care patients rely on, chill investment in new telehealth technologies and service offerings, undermine patients’ peace of mind and cause uncertainty for patients and providers establishing new relationships.

Congress must take action to protect access to vital telehealth services with a long-term extension, without unnecessary restrictions. Learn more about how Congress can act now to safeguard access to telehealth HERE.