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Get to Know Telehealth: Audio-Only Legislation

 
Community health centers utilized audio-only telehealth services to expand access to care for vulnerable and underserved patients throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Read on to learn more about state legislation to support audio-only services.
 
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the utilization of telehealth, including audio-only telehealth, allowing community health centers to expand access to care for their patients. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, health centers increasingly relied on audio-only telehealth to efficiently deliver care to vulnerable populations. 
 
How do health centers use audio-only telehealth to care for patients? 
According to a report by the National Association of Community Health Centers, 92% of health centers report audio-only services have improved patient access to care and 70% report they have been able to treat more patients with behavioral health and substance use disorder needs using audio-only services.1  This is also true in Tennessee, where health centers community health centers report primarily relying on audio-only visits to provide behavioral health care, although many health centers also use audio-only visits for follow-up medical appointments.  
 
Nationally, 85% of health centers report the use of audio-only telehealth has expanded their ability to reach vulnerable populations.2 In Tennessee, health centers have been able to reach and engage with patients in rural parts of Tennessee, where many folks lack broadband. The increase in utilization of audio-only telehealth has allowed Tennessee's health care for folks experiencing homelessness who may not have access to video capable devices and broadband. Audio-only visits have assisted providers when caring for patients who may not be comfortable or equipped to use video-capable devices. 
 
How would state legislation support the use of audio-only telehealth? 
Many telehealth flexibilities including reimbursement for audio-only telehealth services, were initially implemented as temporary measures. However, there has been movement at the state level to make reimbursement for audio-only telehealth permanent, regardless of the status of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
 
In Tennessee, legislation was passed last year that would allow providers to be reimbursed for behavioral health services delivered via audio-only means under certain conditions. TPCA is supporting legislation, SB1846/HB1843 sponsored by Senator Bo Watson and Representative Bryan Terry, to include health care services in the law. If passed, this legislation would require health insurers, including TennCare, the state's Medicaid program, to reimburse for medical services delivered via audio-only telehealth. Providing reimbursement for audio-only medical services will allow community health centers to continue to care for vulnerable and underserved populations in Tennessee beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. 
 
 
 
[1] Telehealth and Health Centers During COVID-19. (2022). Retrieved from https://www.nachc.org/research-and-data/research-fact-sheets-and-infographics/health-centers-and-audio-only-telehealth-during-covid-19/ 
[2] Ibid. 

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