With drug overdose rates increasing across the country, U.S. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Rob Portman (R-OH) have introduced legislation to make telehealth access to substance use disorder treatment permanent.
The bill, Telehealth Response for E-prescribing Addiction Therapy Services (TREAT) Act, would expand on previous federal action to waive the regulatory restriction for accessing behavioral health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the current waivers only last until the public health emergency is active, the TREATS Act would make those waivers permanent.
The legislation would allow health care providers to prescribe Medication-Assisted Therapies (MAT) and other drugs without requiring an in-person visit and would allow providers to bill Medicare for audio-only telehealth services. The congressmen said they hoped the legislation would increase access to MAT and help rural communities with limited broadband internet access.
The Rhode Island Department of Health said accidental drug overdose deaths have increased by nearly 22 percent when comparing the first quarter of 2020 with the first quarter of 2019.
“Overdoses have taken a heartbreaking toll in Rhode Island since the coronavirus pandemic began. Telehealth sessions have been a lifeline for those walking the long road to recovery during a stressful, isolating time,” Whitehouse said. “Our bipartisan legislation would ensure that recovery support continues to be widely available from the comfort of home after the pandemic wanes.”
Whitehouse and Portman reached across the aisle to work together in the fight against opioid addiction for years. The two lawmakers co-authored bipartisan legislation guiding the federal response to the opioid epidemic in 2016, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), and its sequel bill authorizing changes and more federal funding in 2018.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives, and the increase in overdoses we’re seeing only increases the need for additional flexibility to help those suffering from addiction. I’ve had the opportunity to hear about the successes of telehealth in treating substance use disorder directly from behavioral health providers who have continued their fight against the addiction epidemic amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” said Portman. “The roll-out of telehealth waivers has both helped patients maintain access to care safely at home and increased access to care for those that didn’t otherwise have access to in-person treatment. As we move forward and look to life beyond this pandemic, we must make sure that the advances to care and access that telehealth is currently providing is not lost, and that’s exactly what this bill will do.”