Jammed into the final moments of the now-ended 117th Congress before Christmas was the passage of the FY2023 ‘omnibus’ $1.7 trillion Federal budget bill. This bill did at least several good things for those of us concerned with US telehealth, as it extended provisions for Medicare reimbursement that become guidelines for commercial health plans and help to cement telehealth as a permanent part of health care delivery. There is also a tax provision that affects high-deductible health plans.
Their passage is important as the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) is set to expire on 11 January and no movement has been publicly discerned for its renewal. In the fall, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notified US state governors that there would be at least a 60-day notice before the PHE ends. It is unknown whether this notice has been given.
To summarize the two-year extensions that go to the end of 2024:
- Expanding originating and geographic site to include anywhere the patient is located, including the patient’s home
- Expanding eligible practitioners qualified to furnish telehealth services, including occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech-language pathologists, and audiologists
- Extending the ability for federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) and rural health clinics (RHCs) to furnish telehealth services
- Delaying the in-person requirement for mental health services furnished through telehealth, including the in-person requirements for FQHCs and RHCs
- Extending coverage and payment for audio-only telehealth services
- Extending the Acute Hospital Care at Home (AHCAH) initiative, pioneered by Johns Hopkins two decades ago. It also requires the HHS Secretary to publish a report comparing AHCAH programs with traditional inpatient care delivery.
- Extending the ability to use telehealth services to meet the face-to-face recertification requirement for hospice care
- Extending high deductible health plan (HDHP) safe harbor exceptions for telehealth services in high-deductible health plans.
The final bill did not extend the Ryan Haight in-person waiver for the remote prescription of controlled substances. As mentioned in our earlier article, this is a wise move in this Editor’s view given the abuse of this waiver by certain telehealth organizations. ATA/ATA ACTION release.
The HHS Secretary will be required to submit a report to Congress on the utilization of the above services. The interim report is due in October 2024 and the final report in April 2026, according to the American Hospital Association. Affecting hospitals and practices in the bill:
- It delayed the statutory Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) Medicare 4% sequester for two years, preventing the $38 billion in Medicare cuts that otherwise would have taken effect in January.
- Partial relief from a 4.5% reduction in physician reimbursement rates starting on 1 January. The legislation reduced the cut to 2% for 2023 and around 3% for 2024.
Other features of this bill having an effect on healthcare and telehealth (from Infrastructure Report Card):
- $455 million for the expansion of broadband service, including $348 million for the ReConnect program, a series of grants administered by the US Department of Agriculture for the construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas. This could help rural areas and hospitals in provider-patient and provider-to-provider consults.
- $1.65 billion for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an increase of $424 million, or 34%, above the FY 2022 enacted level. Specific funding is allocated for the measurement labs and research at $953 million, a $103 million or 12% increase above the FY 2022 enacted level. The goal is to spur research advances in cutting-edge fields like carbon dioxide removal, artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and cybersecurity.
The bill was signed into law by the president on vacation in St. Croix, USVI. Given the bumpy start of the 118th Congress today, these are at least not up for grabs.