New legislation providing audio-only telehealth visits for Medicare enrollees hit the House of Representatives earlier this week.

Rep. Jason Smith (R-MO) and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) introduced the bipartisan bill, the Permanency for Audio-Only Telehealth Act. It would make permanent audio-only telehealth access that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services extended temporarily during the COVID-19 public health emergency. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic required the U.S. healthcare system to innovate and embrace every viable method of healthcare delivery,” Smith said. “For patients in rural areas back home in Missouri, none have been more beneficial than the expansion of audio-only telehealth. This method of healthcare delivery should serve as a bridge to provide better care and remain a permanent option for patients who will not gain access to broadband and technology overnight.”

Audio-only telehealth during the pandemic has benefitted many elderly homebound seniors in rural parts of the U.S. who lack access to broadband connectivity. But the benefit is set to expire at the end of the public health emergency.

“The pandemic has created challenges for everyone, but it’s also shown us that technology can provide safe and dependable communication between patients and their doctors,” Gottheimer said.

The bill would also remove geographic and originating site restrictions to allow Medicare enrollees’ homes to be telehealth originating sites for audio-only telehealth service.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that more than a third of people living in rural areas don’t have access to broadband services. President Joseph Biden has proposed extending high-speed broadband access to those areas as part of his $1.9 trillion infrastructure plan. Earlier this week, he trimmed the amount of money he was seeking for the broadband buildout from $100 billion to $65 billion, an amount favored by Republicans.

In other telehealth-related news, last week, the House introduced H.R. 3371, the Home Health Emergency Access to Telehealth Act (HEAT), which would provide reimbursement for telehealth services in the Medicare Home Health benefit during the emergency period.