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Warner pushes for release of telehealth guidance to expand access to medical treatment

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U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) is urging the Biden administration to finalize regulations long-delayed by prior administrations allowing doctors to prescribe controlled substances through telehealth.

“I am very concerned that – despite repeated outreach from myself and others in Congress – the previous Administration did not take long-term action to address this issue,” wrote Sen. Warner in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Drug Enforcement Administration Acting Administrator Chris Evans. “I also recognize that much of this delay has been the result of previous Administrations and I hope to work with you all on a new approach that best serves patients.”

In 2020, Warner similarly urged the Trump administration to finalize the long-awaited rules to expand the use of telehealth services, but never received a response.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the importance of increased access to telehealth services and providers across the country continue to be frustrated there is no long-term solution for them to provide adequate care to their patients,” wrote Sen. Warner. “The DEA’s failure to promulgate the rule has meant that – despite Congress’ best efforts – millions of patients could be left without access to long-term treatment via telehealth.”

While the Ryan Haight Act of 2008 prohibited the delivery, distribution, or dispensing of a controlled substance by means of the internet, the law also required the DEA to establish rules allowing certain providers to prescribe and treat their patients without an in-person visit. Despite that requirement, and the passage of several subsequent bipartisan laws reiterating that directive, more than ten years later, the DEA has still not finalized the regulations allowing for prescriptions to be issued following a telehealth appointment.

Sen. Warner noted in this week’s letter, “In practice, the DEA’s failure to address this issue means that a vast majority of health care providers that use telehealth to prescribe controlled substances to and otherwise treat their patients have been deterred in getting them the quality care they need. These restrictions have been temporarily waived during the COVID-19 public health emergency, and I welcome that, but patients and providers need a more permanent and long-term solution to this long-delayed rulemaking.”

Sen. Warner has been a longtime advocate for increased access to health care through telehealth. Last week, he reintroduced legislation to expand coverage of telehealth services through Medicare, make permanent COVID-19 telehealth flexibilities, improve health outcomes, and make it easier for patients to safely connect with their doctors. Last year, during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, Sen. Warner sent a letter to Senate leadership calling for the permanent expansion of access to telehealth services.

In 2018, Sen. Warner successfully included a provision to expand telehealth services for substance abuse treatment in the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018. In 2003, then-Gov. Warner expanded Medicaid coverage for telemedicine statewide, including evaluation and management visits, a range of individual psychotherapies, the full range of consultations, and some clinical services, including in cardiology and obstetrics.

Coverage was also expanded to include non-physician providers. Among other benefits, the telehealth expansion allowed individuals in medically underserved and remote areas of Virginia to access quality specialty care that isn’t always available at home.

Full text of the letter is here.

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