Eliminating the Medicare requirement for an in-person visit prior to telehealth used for mental health services. Yesterday, the Telemental Health Care Access Act of 2021 (PDF link) was introduced in the US Senate. It is a bipartisan bill sponsored by four senators, Bill Cassidy, MD (R-LA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and John Thune (R-SD). It specifically amends Title XVIII of the Social Security Act to ensure coverage of mental health services furnished through telehealth without a prior in-person visit.
The 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act on one hand removed the geographic restrictions for Medicare, but on the other imposed a restriction that requires physicians to see their mental health patients in-person at least six months prior to a Medicare-reimbursed telehealth visit. It’s significant as Medicare and the Physician Fee Schedule (PFS) [TTA 3 Dec 20] set the standards for commercial payers on coverage and reimbursement. The bill, so new it does not have a number yet, is designed to eliminate that requirement.
In the US, there is an acute shortage (at least 6,000) of mental health providers, particularly psychiatrists. Back in 2013, 70 percent of psychiatrists were over the age of 50 and due to retire. As to the top of the funnel, few medical graduates choose psychiatry due to compensation issues (paying for expensive medical education). Those who do are trained in residencies and tend to stay near large cities, further exacerbating the existing geographic imbalance. It’s a situation that hits this Editor close to home as her own brother is one of those semi-retired psychiatrists. He apparently has not been replaced in the clinic practice in which he worked for over 20 years and his private practice is self-limited. Most of the psychiatrists in his suburban area are retiring as well. Psychiatric mental health advanced practice registered nurses (PMH-APRN) fill only part of this gap. (For a further discussion of APRNs and their role in mental health practice, see this issue of Psychiatric Times)
Telemental health can fill some of the gap in rural areas, for continued support in mental health counseling and medical management, and for those who would benefit from cognitive therapies, a burgeoning area for telehealth companies.
The bill is supported by the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and at least 30 companies (including the leading telehealth providers such as Teladoc and Doctor on Demand) and non-profit organizations such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. ATA release and overview of present in-person requirements; Senator Bill Cassidy release.