Senior man sitting at home using digital tablet for video calling. Mature man having online consultation with doctor.
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Medicare and Medicaid programs may soon pay for more long-term care patients’ mental health services under a proposal being prepped by Senate leaders.

The directive is among several telehealth initiatives that are, so far, apart from a discussion draft being developed by the Senate Committee on Finance. The draft, which was released Thursday, outlines several telehealth flexibilities that backers want to be a permanent part of the senators’ larger mental healthcare work. 

“The pandemic made clear that telehealth is a game-changer, particularly so Americans can get mental health care when they need it,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Finance Committee Chair, said in a statement. “These policies will help strengthen access, awareness and support for telehealth, including by creating a ‘bill of rights’ for information on the availability of telehealth for mental health care.” 

Other policies in the draft legislation call for the permanent removal of Medicare’s in-person visit requirement for tele-mental-health services and preserving access to audio-only mental health coverage in Medicare when necessary and appropriate.  

Providers were given permission to use telehealth on a wider scale in March 2020 after the public health emergency was declared. Skilled nursing operators say special allowances have been critical to reducing obstacles to care during the pandemic. In addition to opening up broader telehealth access, waivers have made some nursing home beneficiaries eligible for telehealth services for the first time.

Waivers delivered a significant bump in telehealth services for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. 

The weekly average for the services provided via audio or audio-video technology were about 325,000 instances in mid-March 2020; it peaked at about 1.9 million in mid-April 2020.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on the health and well-being of individuals and communities, exacerbating long-standing challenges with mental health and substance abuse,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) said Thursday. 

“Telehealth, particularly for behavioral health services, has become an essential component of care, and I am pleased that we have this opportunity to improve access to tele-mental health care, particularly for underserved communities,” he added. 

The bipartisan group said the Finance Committee plans to release additional discussion drafts in the near the future.