Flint, MI—Congress is weighing in on legislation to expand access to telehealth for patients on dialysis. If passed, the bipartisan Kidney Health Connect Act would ensure that patients on dialysis would not be charged an additional fee for Medicare telehealth services from their dialysis clinic. 

Under the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration, dialysis clinics have been allowed to serve as Medicare telehealth sites for patients receiving dialysis at the clinics. As the declaration is set to end on Oct. 13, 2022, the Kidney Health Connect Act would codify this provision into law and remove a 20 percent facility fee coinsurance obligation.  

Congressman Dan Kildee, who co-introduced the Kidney Health Connect Act, said telehealth has been a lifeline for many people amid the public health crisis. Moving forward, the bill would ensure that individuals can continue accessing these services while they undergo dialysis at their clinics. 

“We learned a lot during the pandemic,” Kildee said during an Aug. 16, 2022 press conference at Nephrology and Hypertension, PC’s Flint office. “We learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work. One of the things that became increasingly obvious was that access to telehealth was a critical tool in making sure that people had access to the care they needed. It was good for providers and certainly good for patients.” 

More than a million Michigan adults are living with chronic kidney disease in 2022 and roughly 16,000 people in the state were on dialysis in 2018, according to the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan.

Dr. Vaibhav Sahni, a physician and the vice president at Nephrology and Hypertension, PC, said diabetes and high blood pressure are the most common causes of chronic kidney disease in Genesee County, and more broadly, the U.S.

According to the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan, more than 40,000 and 140,000 people in Genesee County had type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, respectively, in 2020.

Sahni said people with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) account for the majority of patients who receive dialysis. As kidney functions decline to this advanced stage, dialysis helps do some of the kidneys’ work, such as removing wastes and toxins from the blood.

Patients with ESRD receiving dialysis at Nephrology and Hypertension, PC, often have multiple health problems, including diabetes, mobility issues, heart disease and high blood pressure. Patients spend anywhere from 12 to 15 hours a week at the clinics for dialysis treatments. And telehealth can help with monitoring symptoms, managing medications and coordinating patients’ care, Sahni explained. 

“This is a win-win situation for everybody,” Sahni said of the Kidney Health Connect Act. “Certainly, it will help the very sick population that we cater to get the care they need.” 

William Poirier, the director of Greenfield Health Systems and a board member of the Renal Healthcare Association, noted that telehealth could reduce the length and number of clinic appointments, as well as transportation costs, for patients on dialysis. 

“Other benefits could possibly be decreasing emergency room visits [and] improving medication reconciliation,” Poirier added. “The average number of medicines a dialysis patient takes per day is 19 pills and we can help with that by allowing telehealth technology in the dialysis unit.” 

The Kidney Health Connect Act is part of the nation’s broader efforts to improve health access. Kildee pointed to the Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in August 2022. The legislation, for instance, limits insulin copays for Medicare beneficiaries to $35 a month beginning in 2023, and starting in 2025, people covered by Medicare will have a $2,000 annual out-of-pocket cap under the Medicare Part D benefit.

Nicholas is Flint Beat’s public health and education reporter. He joins the team as he graduates from Santa Clara University, Calif. Nicholas has previously reported on dementia and brain health, as...