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Telehealth Programs' Growth Could Be Spurred by Medicare Changes, Harper Says

By Kerry Young, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

February 12, 2014 -- Getting greater acceptance of telehealth services through Medicare could help spur wider use in general of video chats and other forms of remote communication between doctors and their patients, a development that could save money and improve care, said Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss.

As of last week, Harper has drawn only 14 cosponsors for his bill (HR 3306) that is intended to create financial incentives for telehealth and includes proposed changes to Medicare. But, the issue is gaining more attention as lawmakers weigh new approaches to designing Medicare payments with an eye toward saving money and improving care, Harper said.

"I really expect a lot of movement over this during the spring," said Harper at a recent meeting of the Alliance for Connected Care at the National Press Club.

At this time, Medicare largely limits its coverage of telehealth services to certain geographic regions, largely rural ones, and the contact must be made from designated centers, according to the newly launched Alliance for Connected Care. Led by former Senate majority leaders Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., and former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., the new alliance has said that Medicare is lagging not only private insurers in use of telemedicine, but also the Department of Veterans Affairs and state Medicaid programs. With lawmakers looking to move away from the sustainable growth rate model in Medicare's payment to doctors, there's an opportunity to make gains for telehealth, Harper said.

"As Congress evaluates the use of alternative payment models and service delivery methods for Medicare, the time is ripe to grant providers the flexibility to improve telemedicine," said Harper, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

His bill so far has drawn five Democratic cosponsors, including Peter Welch of Vermont and Mike Thompson of California.

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