Understanding The Telemental Health Care Access Act of 2021

By: Lisa Morris on October 7, 2021

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has had a massive surge in adoption among patients and practices. That’s not surprising considering how uniquely equipped this tech already was to serve patients seeking care in an environment where the risk of contagion was high.

In fact, telemedicine was so valuable that legislators actually passed temporary laws to make it easier for patients and providers to utilize.

Now that we’ve been in this pandemic for over a year and a half, governing bodies are beginning to re-examine the regulations around telehealth access. That’s exactly what Senators Bill Cassidy, Tina Smith, John Thune, and Ben Cardin have done by introducing the Telemental Health Care Access Act of 2021.

In this article, we’ll go over the highlights of this important healthcare bill to increase understanding and ensure independent practices are able to stay compliant when it’s passed.

What is the Telemental Health Care Access Act of 2021?

The Telemental Health Care Access Act of 2021 is a bipartisan bill that will continue the work of the CARES Act of 2020 by removing the requirement for any Medicare beneficiary to be seen in-person before being able to access virtual behavioral care.

The senators who created this bill were motivated by the increased engagement with telehealth, and specifically remote options for mental and behavioral healthcare delivery, over the past year and a half.

“Telehealth has been essential for maintaining and expanding access to healthcare services during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially true for those seeking mental health counseling and medical management, as we have seen spikes in anxiety, depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide resulting from social isolation.

This legislation provides additional flexibility to increase access for Medicare beneficiaries needing mental health services.

—Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD)

What’s going to change

Specifically, this bill targets and seeks to eliminate one small existing mandate for Medicare patients seeking remote mental health care: the requirement that they be seen in-person within six months of receiving mental health treatment through telehealth.

This mandate was a seemingly arbitrary stipulation put in place by the end-of-year omnibus stimulus package, so the removal of this requirement shouldn’t have any major impact on billing. Instead, it will effectively make accessing telemental health care much easier for patients.

This is great news for online therapy providers like Talkspace and BetterHelp that seek to connect patients with behavioral therapists regardless of location. While these online providers are not yet covered by Medicare, this change may indicate plans to broaden coverage in the future.

The bigger trend for telemedicine legislation

The Telemental Health Care Access Act is actually just one piece of legislation out of many related to the effort of making telehealth more accessible in the future.

As we already mentioned, the regulation adjustments made in 2020 were temporary pieces of legislation, passed as quickly as possible to make life easier at the height of the pandemic. But we are rapidly approaching the time when those regulatory changes were meant to expire, and patients aren’t ready to let that access go quite yet.

Other proposed bills aimed at extending telehealth access include:

  • The bipartisan Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act, which will help patients in remote parts of the country continue to have access to medical and behavioral care via telehealth.

  • The CONNECT for Health Act, which seeks to further expand coverage for telehealth services under Medicare and make some of the temporary changes made in 2020 permanent.

It’s obvious from these proposed changes that legislators are well aware of the benefits of telehealth to patients and practices alike, and the hope is that access will remain widely available long after the pandemic ends.

To learn more about telemedicine and other remote patient care tools, check out the following resources: