U.S. Senators Tina Smith & Lisa Murkowski Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Improve Access to Tele-Mental Health during COVID-19

WASHINGTON, D.C. [3/16/21]—U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced a bipartisan bill to help more Americans access tele-mental health care during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The Tele-Mental Health Improvement Act would address gaps in tele-mental health coverage that prevent Americans from receiving care. 

Sens. Smith and Murkowski said that expanding access to tele-mental health is important to address COVID-19’s negative effect on the mental health of Americans. Last year 45 percent of adults in the United States reported increased stress and worry due to the public health and economic implications of COVID-19. But right now a significant percent of commercial plans do not pay providers the same rate for tele-health visits as in-person visits. And only 1 in 4 enrollees in the fully-insured group market have a plan with tele-health provider parity requirements. 

 “It’s clear that we need to redouble our efforts to address the increased demand for tele-mental health services across America during COVID-19,” said Sen. Smith. “This bipartisan legislation will eliminate barriers that make it difficult to access this much needed care. I’m glad to be working with Sen. Murkowski on this and will focus on moving it forward.”

 “As we continue to address the impacts of COVID-19, another crisis has emerged – the crisis of mental health. I continue to hear from Alaskans that they are facing challenges with accessing or delivering services via telehealth. This includes Alaskans and Alaskan mental health providers that have been unable to continue existing relationships due to restrictions on telehealth coverage. This legislation ensures that ERISA health plans provide coverage for mental health services via telehealth for the duration of the COVID emergency,” said Sen. Murkowski. “The pandemic has made telehealth services an essential component of care. Americans must have access to mental health care services, no matter where they reside.”

 “Access to telehealth has been essential during the pandemic and APA is pleased that Sens. Smith and Murkowski have reintroduced the Telemental Health Improvement Act,” said American Psychiatric Association President Jeffrey Geller, M.D., M.P.H. “This legislation will ensure that patients can continue to receive vital services for mental health and substance use disorders, while maintaining safe physical distance during the pandemic and beyond.”

 “All of these provisions are essential, as many providers have found that during the crisis mental health and substance use disorder services are not covered through telehealth, or the reimbursement is lower than it is for in-person care, and there are often other hurdles in place that restrict access,” said the Mental Health Liaison Group. “This legislation will grant individuals experiencing mental health conditions and/or substance use disorders access to safe and timely care and will help mitigate some of the pandemic-related increases in deaths of despair due to suicides and overdoses.”

Senators Smith and Murkowski’s bipartisan Tele-Mental Health Improvement Act would improve access to tele-mental health during the length of the COVID-19 public health emergency by:

  • Requiring ERISA plans to cover mental health and substance use disorder services provided through telehealth at the same rate and cost sharing as for the same services provided in-person;
  • Prohibiting health plans from imposing additional barriers to access telehealth;
  • Directing health plans to inform enrollees how they can access mental health and substance use disorder services via telehealth;
  • Prohibiting providers from charging facility fees for telehealth services; and
  • Requiring the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to issue a report on the impact of telehealth parity measures on the use of telehealth and in-person services.

This legislation is endorsed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota, WithAll, The Emily Program, and over 65 members of the Mental Health Liaison Group, including the National Council for Behavioral Health, American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action.

 You can read a summary of the legislation here and bill text here.