White House Expands Medicare Telehealth Services Amid COVID-19 Crisis

Gregory Twachtman

March 18, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The Trump administration is looking to telehealth services to play a more prominent role in helping mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by expanding existing benefits for Medicare beneficiaries.

"Medicare can pay for office, hospital, and other visits furnished via telehealth across the country and including in patients' places of residence, starting March 6, 2020," the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said in a fact sheet issued March 17.

Some of the existing benefits were previously limited to rural communities.

"Medicare beneficiaries across the nation, no matter where they live, will now be able to receive a wide range of services via telehealth without ever having to leave home," CMS Administrator Seema Verma said during a March 17 White House press briefing on administration actions to contain the spread of COVID-19. "These services can also be provided in a variety of settings, including nursing homes, hospital outpatient departments, and more."

That means that seniors can continue to receive their routine care without having to leave the home and risk infection, or they can get medical guidance if they have mild symptoms, which would help mitigate the spread to others.

"This shift is very important for clinicians and providers who, over the coming weeks, will face considerable strain on their time and resources," Dr. Verma said. "[It] allows the health care system to prioritize care for those who have more needs or who are in dire need, and it also preserves protective equipment."

A range of providers will be able to deliver telehealth services, including doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers. Visits using the telehealth services will be considered the same as in-person visits and will be paid as if the patient were seen in the office.

This expansion of Medicare telehealth services will continue for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

"In addition, the [Health and Human Services'] office of inspector general is providing flexibility for health care providers to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits paid by federal health care programs," the fact sheet states. CMS also said it will not conduct audits to ensure that an established relationship exists between the provider and the patient – a prior requirement for telehealth billing – during this public health emergency.

Billing for virtual check-ins, which are essentially brief conversations that may not require a full visit to the physician office, needs an established relationship between the practice and the patient. Likewise, for e-visits, which include non–face-to-face communications through online patient portals, billing can occur only when there is an established patient relationship.

Key to the expansion is that it will cover the entire United States and will not be limited to rural areas.

Dr. Verma also noted that the administration "will be temporarily suspending certain HIPAA requirements so that doctors can provide telehealth with their own phones."

She noted this was all a part of mitigation efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

"As we are encouraging Americans to stay home whenever possible, we don't want our Medicare policies getting in the way," she said, adding that state Medicaid agencies can expand their telehealth services without the approval of CMS during this emergency.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com.


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