Medicare Telehealth Parity Act of 2017 Would Expand Role of Audiology
Much of the focus of the Over-the-Counter (OTC) Hearing Aid Act of 2017 (S.670 and H.R.1652) has been on improving accessibility and affordability to hearing aids by providing a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) distribution channel for patients who are comfortable with self-assessment and fitting of hearing aids. The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) successfully controlled the narrative that a new category of OTC devices could improve hearing aid adoption rates, but the reality of the situation is that many of today’s current hearing aid users prefer to have a professional involved in their hearing health care.
To that end, the Medicare Telehealth Parity Act of 2017 (H.R. 2550) is another bill under consideration in the 115th Congress that would expand the role for audiology in telehealth services. The proposed legislation identifies audiologists as appropriate providers of telehealth services and authorizes Medicare to reimburse them for providing patients with much-needed care. If passed, the bill would phase in the expansion of telehealth services by expanding the list of eligible providers and related covered services to include audiologists (Section 4, 18-24), among other health-care professionals, remove the geographical barriers under current law, and include the provision of telehealth services in rural, underserved, and metropolitan areas. It would also allow remote monitoring for patients with chronic health conditions.
At the time of this writing, the OTC Hearing Aid Act of 2017 was included as a provision in the FDA Reauthorization Act and passed by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. It is now on its way to the Oval Office for signature by President Trump. Subsequently, the FDA will have at least 90 days, and up to three years, to create a new OTC category. In addition to DIY, there are other threats (and opportunities) to audiological practice, including growth in third-party pay and an expanded role for telehealth services. In fact, the Veterans Administration recently announced the expansion of their “anywhere to anywhere” health-care services to include telehealth services for veterans. Perhaps it is time to shift attention away from OTC hearing aids, which create another pathway to hearing aids, to the way that audiologists can enhance face-to-face engagement through telehealth. If legislation is passed that successfully allows for audiologists to be included as “appropriate” providers to receive reimbursement for Medicare and Medicaid telehealth services, it can continue to reinforce the role of the audiologist in delivery high-quality audiologic care.