Skilled Nursing Telehealth Bill Gets New Life Amid Coronavirus [Updated]

Telemedicine is drawing national attention from lawmakers as officials look to safeguard health care workers and patients — while nursing homes anxiously monitor infection-control policies to protect vulnerable residents from the global pandemic of the coronavirus.

Expanded Medicare coverage of telehealth services was included in the recent $8.3 billion emergency bill, offering national aid in coronavirus prevention and care. Although the emergency legislation does not cover new patients — a gap which left has some telemedicine operators scratching their heads — some industry experts are touting the Wednesday reintroduction of a bill in Congress that would further move telemedicine higher on the health care totem pole to include more Medicare recipients.

More specifically, the companion versions of the Reducing Unnecessary Senior Hospitalizations (RUSH) Act of 2020 focuses on incentivizing value-based arrangements between medical groups and on-site nursing home staff to coordinate telehealth and prevent costly trips to the ER.

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The bipartisan bill was introduced by Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota and Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin — members of the Senate Finance Committee — and Rep. Adrian Smith, a Repbulican from Nebraska, and Rep. Ann Kuster, a Democrat from New Hampshire.

“South Dakota has led the way in utilization of telehealth, and the RUSH Act acknowledges the success we have seen from using technology to coordinate care for seniors in nursing facilities,” Thune said in a statement. “By establishing a voluntary Medicare alternative payment model, the RUSH Act creates the right incentives for nursing facilities to work with a provider group to adopt telehealth to reduce avoidable emergency department visits.”

At Chicago-based Third Eye Health, a provider offering remote care in the nursing home sector, CEO Dan Herbstman said the company’s lobbyist group has been advocating for the RUSH Act as well as a general expansion of telehealth services in Washington — which he said, is an even more pressing matter amid the outbreak of the virus in these vulnerable spaces.

“We haven’t talked to a lot of people who have actual reported cases, but we do have people who are putting policies in place now, where they think that pretty soon it may be difficult for their own staff or physicians, who would normally have come on site,” Herbstman told SNN on Wednesday.

Any savings as a result of these services will be allocated to the nursing home and the chosen telemedicine medicine group partnership. Facilities with less than three-star ratings may participate, although these lower-rated nursing homes would not be eligible for joint savings until reaching a three stars.

Medicare Special Focus Facilities are ineligible to participate, and if the telemedicine program doesn’t show savings over a period of time, Medicare may forego reimbursements.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story referenced concerns about a provision of the RUSH Act that would require an employee of the telehealth company to be on site in a nursing home; that requirement, while in previous versions of the RUSH Act, has been removed from the most recent bills. SNN regrets the error.

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