Medicare nursing home residents would keep their access to some telehealth flexibilities adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic long after the public health crisis is over under a new proposal from a bipartisan group of lawmakers. 

The legislation — Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act — was introduced late last week by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Jerry Moran (R-KS). The proposal would allow Medicare patients to have continued access to audio-only forms of telehealth services, and would permanently waive the geographic restriction on the program’s telehealth services. 

“This is super important legislation that will help protect seniors and allow easier access to care,” Eric Boley, president of LeadingAge Wyoming, told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News Monday. “It also will lead to better ease for nursing homes to get residents the care they need without having to go through a discharge process.”

The proposal is aimed at ensuring Medicare patients, with an emphasis on those in rural areas, have continued access to the services and consultations that they need. Patients in rural areas without access to broadband will still be able to utilize audio-only and phone-based visits with their doctors, the lawmakers said.

“It should not have taken a pandemic for Medicare to finally unlock the potential of telehealth services — and now we need to make sure that these vital telehealth services continue to be available to patients long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over,” Shaheen said in a statement

Prior to the public health emergency, just 14,000 Medicare beneficiaries received telehealth services per week. Its use has exploded following the expansion of coverage in response to the pandemic. From mid-March 2020 through early July 2020, more than 10 million beneficiaries received telehealth services.

New Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure has also expressed her support for permanently adopting telehealth coverage waivers issued during COVID-19. 

“This pandemic has given us an opportunity to take the lessons across a variety of issues, and telehealth is something that’s been discussed for more than a decade, and now we’ve been able to see what value it brings,” Brooks-LaSure said during her confirmation hearing in April.