What's stopping Congress from extending telehealth benefits

The House passed legislation to extend Medicare reimbursements for medical visits that occur by video or phone call through 2024, but recent federal crackdowns on Medicare fraud linked to telehealth have raised concerns in Washington, Politico reported Aug. 7.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, the only Democrat to vote against the extension, said he believes in the expansion, but wants protections against fraud to be built into the law, according to the report. 

"This bill contains a glaring omission," Mr. Doggett said. "Whenever billions of federal dollars are available anywhere, some will try to steal it and that's what's happening with telehealth."

Mr. Doggett's apprehension reflects longstanding concerns that telehealth could introduce new opportunities for criminals to defraud vulnerable patients.

Most recently, the Justice Department made 36 arrests, charging people with alleged kickback telehealth schemes totaling more than $1.2 billion. These schemes include physicians and practitioners ordering unnecessary lab tests, medical equipment and prescribing unneeded drugs in order to bill Medicare.

But telehealth advocates and experts argue that much of what the DOJ has found isn't specific to telemedicine and shouldn't be cited as reason to restrict telehealth access.

Regardless, Mr. Doggett said this distinction doesn't matter, according to the report. 

"Whatever label is applied, it's all still fraud," Mr. Doggett said. "We should be taking reasonable steps to prevent it, not just responding with prosecutions that usually return no more than pennies on the dollar of stolen billions."

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