Hill, Axne, Balderson, Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Expand Telehealth for Critical Health Services

WASHINGTON D.C. — Today, Rep. French Hill (AR-02), Rep. Cindy Axne (IA-03), and Rep. Troy Balderson (OH-12) introduced bipartisan legislation that would expand telehealth availability for Arkansans needing important therapeutic services during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.

The Emergency COVID-19 Telehealth Response Act would ensure that physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, audiologists, and clinical social workers can receive telehealth reimbursement rates from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) while providing necessary health services. Currently, CMS has not authorized telehealth usage for these five categories of specialized care.

“Accessing medical services during this unprecedented public health crisis is challenging for Arkansans, which is why we are proposing to fill the gaps in care by making available therapy services available through telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Rep Hill. “Patients should have alternatives to in-person visits to keep both patients and providers safe, and I am proud to support this bill.”

“During this coronavirus pandemic, Iowans who need physical or occupational therapy should not be forced to get face-to-face care in order to keep themselves on track. This legislation will make sure that patients with ALS and other illnesses have the same access to therapies in their home that we’ve granted for other medical services,” said Rep. Axne. “I know how helpful speech therapy and audiology services can be for our children and seniors – and how hard the setback of even just a few missed classes or sessions can be. Additionally, our social workers serve an important role in protecting our most vulnerable and we can better protect our community by authorizing telework for clinical social workers. With expanded telehealth capabilities, we can ensure Iowans aren’t forced to choose between taking the precautions of staying home and getting the care they need.”

“Just because Ohioans are staying at home doesn’t mean they don’t need continued care,” said Rep. Balderson. “The challenges posed by this pandemic require innovative solutions and accommodations. This legislation will help connect Ohioans — especially those living in rural areas or at high risk for COVID-19 — to essential treatments while also supporting our state’s ongoing efforts to reduce the virus’ spread.”

Last month, Congress unanimously passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included language that gave the CMS Administrator authority to expand telehealth usage. While CMS has provided telehealth billing codes for these services, usage of them has still not been authorized, leading to confusion among patients. The new legislation would codify the authority for these services to be accessed through telehealth to better meet patients’ needs.

The benefits of therapy services include improved health and quality of living and reduced return visits to health care providers. One to two weeks of weekly physical therapy sessions can help lower the likelihood of re-hospitalization for older adults by up to 82% in a 60-day period, according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association.

The bill has the endorsement of 20 organizations, including the American Hospital Association, Iowa Physical Therapy Association, American Physical Therapy Association, the Iowa Occupational Therapy Association, the American Occupational Therapist Association, the American Academy of Audiology, the Academy of Doctors of Audiology, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the Alliance for Physical Therapy Quality and Innovation, the National Council on Aging, the National Association of Social Workers, the ALS Foundation, the OrthoForum, Des Moines University, and others.

“We are thrilled that Rep. Axne has introduced this bill given the importance of enabling occupational therapy practitioners to provide remote services through telehealth to Medicare beneficiaries during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Sherry Keramidas, PhD, FASAE, CAE, Executive Director of American Occupational Therapy Association. “The ability of occupational therapy practitioners to provide services to our most vulnerable populations has never been more important than during the current COVID-19 pandemic, yet Medicare does not allow occupational therapy services to be provided by therapists via telehealth. Access to telehealth services through Medicare will help occupational therapy practitioners to continue essential therapy services despite closures and other service disruptions

“The Iowa Occupational Therapy Association is grateful for the strong leadership of Congresswoman Axne, especially her tireless work to respond to the health care needs of Iowa’s Medicare population by ensuring the safe delivery of therapy services in rural and urban areas. Her efforts to clarify and establish the availability of telehealth occupational therapy services will ensure increased access and safer delivery for needed medical services for many Iowans during the ongoing pandemic. Thank you for making Iowa’s Medicare beneficiaries who are often at greatest risk to COVID-19 a top priority during this pandemic,” said Steve Bowen, spokesman for the Iowa Occupational Therapy Association.

“The practice of Physical Therapy has continued to serve as an integral aspect of the health care team, especially during this time of restrictive requirements imposed with the COVID-19 outbreak. It is essential for patients’ well-being that consideration be given to providing Medicare coverage, for this higher risk population, for the delivery of services via telehealth,” said Kari Smith, DPT, Clinic Manager for Des Moines University Physical Therapy Clinic. “Physical Therapy evaluation and treatment are vital to the surgical recovery, pain management along with the improvement of their overall movement and function. Telehealth delivery permits our providers to expand the reach of our service to Iowans; of all ages and health conditions, rural communities and those who may be in isolation. On behalf of our patients, clients and providers, we greatly appreciate the support of Congresswoman Axne as we work to continue to improve the lives of our patients during this unprecedented time.”

“The coronavirus pandemic demands that health care providers rethink how care is delivered to reduce the risk of further spreading infection. The ability to utilize telehealth under Medicare has become of paramount importance to ensure the safety of patients and their physical therapy providers. We are grateful to Rep. Axne for her leadership and commitment to helping patients access therapy services, and provide flexibility in how care is delivered during the national emergency,” said Justin Elliott, spokesman for the American Physical Therapy Association.

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