Telehealth legislation is ramping up on the congressional floor, and Amazon is spending big on its telehealth investments and lobbying.
Telehealth became a necessity in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and spending on health services surged. Due to the historic amount of congressional legislation focused on health care services because of the pandemic, federal lobbying spending by health service groups reached a record $100.9 million in 2020. That was roughly five times what they spent 20 years ago — and the industry is on track to spend more in 2021.
Amazon, which is creating its own health care service, is the biggest corporate lobbying spender so far in 2021. The company has spent nearly $10.2 million on lobbying in the first six months of the year, and spent $18.7 million in 2020. Amazon has used some of its lobbying expenditure to spend on legislation focused on telehealth.
Amazon’s telehealth splurge comes during the second year of offering its own virtual health care service, Amazon Care. The app-based program connects customers with licensed clinicians, and allows them to message, audio call or video call each other. It also includes prescription delivery and in-home care.
As of now, Amazon Care’s in-person services are limited to a few areas in the U.S. — including Washington state, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore — but it is set to add 20 cities by the end of 2022. By the end of 2021, the service could reach Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Dallas, according to a report from Business Insider.
Amazon Care is currently funded by companies that pay it directly, including Amazon itself. The company has approached Aetna, an insurance provider owned by CVS Health, to work with the platform. CVS Health has spent $4.9 million on lobbying this year, and has lobbied telehealth bills. Other insurers such as Premera Blue Cross, an independent licensee of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, are also working with Amazon Care to make its services a covered benefit. Blue Cross/Blue Shield has spent $12 million on lobbying in 2021, according to an OpenSecrets analysis.
Amazon has lobbied in support of four specific telehealth bills this year. The most prominent is H.R. 1332 or the Telehealth Modernization Act of 2021, which codifies and expands telehealth services under Medicare. So far, 43 groups have lobbied the bill, and have spent a combined $61.4 million on it and other issues, according to an analysis done by OpenSecrets.
The Hospital Corporation of America, one of the largest health systems in the country, is also rallying behind the Telehealth Modernization Act. The company has already spent nearly $1.1 million this year lobbying various issues. In 2020, the company’s lobbying expenditure jumped to $2.4 million, and it has already spent $2.1 million in 2021.
During the first half of 2021, 165 organizations collectively spent $175.8 million lobbying proposed legislation and telehealth bills, according to an OpenSecrets analysis. At least 13 bills focusing on telehealth have been introduced in Congress this year, and numerous companies, including Amazon, have lobbied them.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is the top lobbying spender so far in 2021, has lobbied on telehealth legislation as well. The group has spent $29.6 million on lobbying in the first six months of 2021.
The largest health care industry employer in the country, UnitedHealth Group, spent $1.8 million lobbying health services in the first half of 2021, and specifically lobbied two telehealth bills: S.150 and H.R. 2166. The bills would ensure Medicare Advantage and PACE beneficiaries can access audio-only telehealth services, and their providers can be reimbursed for them.
Some of the nation’s largest health care groups are also lobbying S.150 and H.R. 2166. In the first six months of 2021, Kaiser Permanente spent $2.3 million on lobbying, and Centene Corp spent $2.5 million.
Telehealth’s lobbying expansion coincided with an unprecedented increase in campaign spending by the health service groups. The industry donated over $160.7 million to campaigns during the 2020 election cycle — more than it spent on the 1990 to 2012 election cycles combined. A majority of that money ($109.1 million) came from Miriam Adelson, of the Adelson Clinic for Drug Abuse Treatment & Research. The 2020 total more than doubled the $68.4 million the industry spent in 2016. The majority of their 2020 contributions — $29.1 million — went to Democratic candidates.