By Peter Johnson

Telehealth use has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, and is likely to remain higher than it was before the crisis on a permanent basis. However, the difficult work of regulating and establishing rate structure for telehealth beyond the COVID-19 pandemic has only just started.

On June 17, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing about how to consolidate the gains in telehealth made necessary by the pandemic.

The most important policy decision that Congress must make is on reimbursement. CMS has elected to compensate telehealth visits at the same rate as in-person visits for the duration of the pandemic, but whether that will continue is likely to be decided in the coming weeks. At present, commercial plans have a wide variation in telehealth reimbursement amounts.

Providers will likely oppose setting telehealth reimbursement at rates lower than in-person visits, and experts predict the balance of visits will shift more heavily toward remote consultations going forward.

Yet part of the allure of telehealth for payers and patients is that a remote visit generally costs less than an in-person consultation. The stakes are high for the payer industry: Provider services seem to be the main driver behind higher overall health care spending in the last decade. If telehealth visits account for a meaningful share of overall visits across the industry, a lower rate of reimbursement will make a big difference in lowering costs.

The other major regulatory challenge for telehealth is provider licensing. State medical boards exercise control over whether a clinician can practice in their state, and it is typically illegal for a practitioner licensed in one state to care for patients in another.

“We think the best way to handle [state licensure] is through a compact,” said Krista Drobac, the executive director of the Alliance for Connected Care, during a session at America’s Health Insurance Plans’ Institute & Expo. “We would like to see licensure reciprocity or mutual recognition, what we refer to as licensure portability.…Congress can’t step in and take over licensing — that’s just not a federal responsibility.”

Yet Avalere Health founder Dan Mendelson takes a different view. “The licensure issues are problematic. The Congress needs to act more aggressively to make it easier to deliver telemedicine in the United States,” he says.