Ernst unveils bipartisan bill to permanently protect Medicare telehealth services

Access to telehealth services under the Medicare program would be protected under a bipartisan bill introduced on June 9 by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA).

The Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act, S. 1988, which Sen. Ernst cosponsored with bill sponsor U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), would continue to expand access to telehealth for Americans living in rural areas, according to a bill summary provided by the lawmakers.

Specifically, S. 1988 would make permanent current telehealth flexibilities that have been put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing rural providers to build out their infrastructure without worrying about temporary telehealth flexibilities, the summary says.

“Even before the pandemic, access to telehealth was critical to helping Iowans in rural areas get the care they need. That’s why I prioritized working with Democrats and Republicans to expand access to these services during this difficult year,” Sen. Ernst said. “Now that we’ve seen its success, there’s no reason we shouldn’t make these changes permanent to continue supporting both our rural patients and hospitals.”

Sen. Manchin added that many Americans in rural areas don’t have access to reliable, affordable broadband, which is essential for video telehealth services. Instead, many are forced to use audio-only telehealth appointments.

“Our bill ensures that rural telehealth providers can give rural Americans the quality care they deserve by eliminating restrictions on the use of telehealth options and ensuring doctors can be reimbursed for services they provide to patients from the comfort of their homes,” he said.

If enacted, S. 1988 would permanently waive the geographic restriction allowing patients to be treated from their homes; permit critical access hospitals to directly bill for telehealth services and allow them to be paid according to the payment methodology they have already selected; and permanently allow rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers to serve as distant sites, according to the bill summary.

The legislation has been referred for consideration to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee.