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Medicare telehealth flexibilities put in place during the public health emergency, and hailed by providers, would remain in place for five months after the PHE ends if enough lawmakers line up behind a $1.5 trillion spending package filed on Wednesday. 

The package, which lawmakers are expected to vote on this week, extended the telehealth waivers for 151 days after the PHE declaration ends. The declaration is currently set to expire in mid-April but is expected to be extended for an additional three months.

Broader permissions for providers to use telehealth flexibilities were first announced in March 2020. Many skilled nursing operators say they have been critical to reducing obstacles to care during the COVID-19 pandemic. The waivers allow healthcare providers to be paid for a wider range of telehealth services for beneficiaries, and permit nursing home beneficiaries to receive telehealth services.

Those waivers resulted in a significant bump up in telehealth services for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. 

The weekly average for the services provided via audio and audio-video technology came in at about 325,000 in mid-March 2020 and then peaked at about 1.9 million in mid-April 2020.

“The omnibus’ extension of telehealth waivers for five months after the COVID-19 emergency ends can help to ensure quality of life for millions of older adults who, due to transportation or other issues, rely on virtual visits with their healthcare providers,” Katie Smith Sloan, LeadingAge’s president and CEO, said in a statement Wednesday. “Telehealth, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, can mean the difference between life and death, particularly for older adults.”