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The $1.7 trillion spending package Congress passed in December included a two-year extension of key telehealth provisions, such as coverage for Medicare beneficiaries to have phone or video medical appointments at home. But according to a report by Kaiser Health News, it also signaled political reluctance to make the payment changes permanent, requiring federal regulators to study how Medicare enrollees use telehealth.

The federal extension “basically just kicked the can down the road for two years,” said Julia Harris, associate director for the health program at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center think tank. At issue are questions about the value and cost of telehealth, who will benefit from its use, and whether audio and video appointments should continue to be reimbursed at the same rate as face-to-face care.

Before the pandemic, Medicare paid for only narrow uses of remote medicine, such as emergency stroke care provided at hospitals. Medicare also covered telehealth for patients in rural areas but not in their homes — patients were required to travel to a designated site such as a hospital or doctor’s office.

But the pandemic brought a “seismic change in perception” and telehealth “became a household term,” said Kyle Zebley, senior vice president of public policy at the American Telemedicine Association.

The omnibus bill’s provisions include: paying for audio-only and home care; allowing for a variety of doctors and others, such as occupational therapists, to use telehealth; delaying in-person requirements for mental health patients; and continuing existing telehealth services for federally qualified health clinics and rural health clinics.

Telehealth use among Medicare beneficiaries grew from less than 1% before the pandemic to more than 32% in April 2020. By July 2021, the use of remote appointments retreated somewhat, settling at 13% to 17% of claims submitted, according to a fee-for-service claims analysis by McKinsey & Co.

Fears over potential fraud and the cost of expanding telehealth have made politicians hesitant, said Josh LaRosa, vice president at the Wynne Health Group, which focuses on payment and care delivery reform. The report required in the omnibus package “is really going to help to provide more clarity,” LaRosa said.

In a 2021 report, the Government Accountability Office warned that using telehealth could increase spending in Medicare and Medicaid, and historically the Congressional Budget Office has said telehealth could make it easier for people to use more health care, which would lead to more spending.

During the pandemic, licensing requirements in states were often relaxed to enable doctors to practice in other states and many of those requirements are set to expire at the end of the public health emergency.

Licensing requirements were not addressed in the omnibus, and to ensure telehealth access, states need to allow physicians to treat patients across state lines, said Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, Sanford Health’s chief physician. This has been particularly important in providing mental health care, he said; virtual visits now account for about 20% of Sanford’s appointments.