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June 26, 2020

King, Young Introduce Bill to Expand Mental Telehealth Services for Medicare Beneficiaries

Weekly telehealth visits have spiked 1,000% after the coronavirus spread nationwide in March

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Angus King (I-Maine) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) have introduced the Mental and Behavioral Health Connectivity Act, legislation to allow Medicare beneficiaries to continue to access mental and behavior health services through telehealth in the near term and after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Currently, authorizations included in the CARES Act create additional flexibility which allows the use of telehealth for mental and behavioral healthcare; however, these expansions only extend through the pandemic. The King-Young legislation would permanently expand these provisions, allow Medicare beneficiaries to keep receiving care in their home, continue eligibility of care for the expanded list of non-physician providers, and allow Medicare to cover audio-only delivery of telehealth services.

“As the coronavirus pandemic has created social distancing guidelines that forced many to stay at home to protect their communities, Americans are appreciating the alternative offered by telehealth in order to continue seeing their healthcare providers,” said Senator King. “Though we may be physically separated from our friends, family, neighbors, and healthcare providers, telehealth helps ensure that Americans facing challenges can still tap into their life-saving support systems, and opens up new opportunities to help Americans seeking mental health care for the first time. That’s an accomplishment worth building on, even after this crisis is over.

“Enabling Americans to access medical care and mental health services through telehealth is critical during this public health crisis. By allowing Medicare beneficiaries to continue receiving mental and behavioral health services remotely, this bipartisan bill will help keep patients safe as they continue to socially distance, and after we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic,” said Senator Young.

“Serious mental health problems like depression, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and post-traumatic stress disorder continue to pose a societal crisis,” said Thomas Cooper, President of the Maine Psychological Association. “As psychologists, we are preparing for the second pandemic: a mental health crisis in America. The Maine Psychological Association commends Senators King and Young for their bipartisan leadership on legislation to permanently expand access to telehealth, including audio-only phone services. The Mental and Behavioral Health Connectivity Act (S. 3999) opens an important door for Medicare seniors in need of timely and effective psychotherapy, and other mental and behavioral healthcare, allowing telehealth from their home. Ensuring access to appropriate mental health treatment through telehealth is critical to the whole-person health of every American and for society at large. The Maine Psychological Association joins with the American Psychological Association in advocating for swift enactment of this vital bill.”

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS), weekly telehealth visits increased from 12,000 a week before the coronavirus spread in March to more than 1 million a week across the country. CMS Administrator Seema Verma has acknowledged that returning to the status quo isn’t feasible, stating, “I can’t imagine going back...People recognize the value of this, so it seems like it would not be a good thing to force our beneficiaries to go back to in-person visits.”

Nearly one in five adults in the U.S. live with a mental illness, which was equivalent to 46.6 million Americans in 2017, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A study conducted before the pandemic on Medicare beneficiaries found that 4.2 percent of total Medicare spending went to mental health services and 8.5 percent went to additional medical spending associated with mental illness, for a total of 12.7 percent of total spending associated with mental health disorders. Of particular concern is access to adequate mental and behavioral health services in rural areas with unreliable or non-existent internet service.

Senator King has pushed to make sure America’s medical professionals and healthcare infrastructure have the tools they need to treat coronavirus patients and protect themselves. Recently, he introduced the Improving Telehealth for Underserved Communities Act, legislation to protect patients receiving care through telehealth services by shielding certain rural health clinics (RHCs) and Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) in underserved communities from impending Medicare payments that could hinder their ability to care and treat patients. Senator King has also joined video calls to hear directly from the “Choose To Be Healthy Coalition” at York Hospital, and Northern Light Health. Earlier this month, he cosponsored legislation that would adjust a CMS loan program in order to reduce interest rates for healthcare providers struggling to manage the financial pressures created by the pandemic. He has cosponsored bipartisan legislation that would extend a lifeline to rural hospitals and providers and the 60 million Americans who depend on them for health care by providing immediate financial relief, stabilize hospitals, and encourage hospital coordination. Senator King joined the Maine delegation to take action to protect access to healthcare and preserve important economic drivers in rural Maine. He has also urged the FCC to expand access to telehealth services in rural communities, and joined a bipartisan group of Senators calling for telehealth expansions included in coronavirus relief legislation to be made permanent.

The Mental and Behavioral Health Connectivity Act is supported by: American Counseling Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, Mental Health for America, National Association of Social Workers, National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, and the National Suicide Prevention Foundation.

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