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WASHINGTON

A win for Katko: Medicare expands coverage for mental telehealth services

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Congress Homeland Security

Rep. John Katko questions witnesses during a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing in 2020.

U.S. Rep. John Katko pushed for Medicare to temporarily cover audio-only mental telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, that policy will be permanent. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced the change in November. Under the new policy, the agency amended its definition of "interactive telecommunications systems" for telehealth services to include audio-only communications for "the diagnosis, evaluation, or treatment of mental health disorders furnished to established patients in their homes under certain circumstances." 

The new definition is significant because, as a Department of Health and Human Services study found, telehealth usage by Medicare beneficiaries increased 63-fold during the pandemic. 

Medicare will also cover mental health visits facilitated by federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics that use video-based telehealth services or audio-only telephone calls. 

Katko, who co-chairs the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, noted that before its policy change, Medicare reimbursed seniors for telehealth services using audio and video technology on computers, smartphones and tablets. But audio-only telephone calls weren't covered. 

According to Katko, R-Camillus, that prevented Medicare recipients who do not have access to a computer, smartphone or tablet from utilizing mental telehealth services. 

"It's welcome news that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has changed their policy will now allow seniors to be reimbursed for mental health services they receive over the phone," Katko said. "Many seniors struggle to access telehealth services when they're only available using laptops, tablets, or smartphones. That's why this fix is so important. 

"With seniors throughout central New York still reliant on telehealth services, this permanent policy fix will ensure seniors in need are able to receive quality mental health treatment safely from home." 

Katko's effort to get Medicare to cover audio-only mental telehealth services began in April 2020 — the first full month of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, he asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to reimburse seniors for audio-only mental telehealth services. That push was successful — the agency adopted a temporary policy to cover those services. 

Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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