Over the past few months, many people have gotten used to seeing their doctor virtually, or being able to call them from the comfort of their own home. Access to telemedicine was greatly expanded during the recent pandemic, and this has been especially beneficial for seniors. Having access to telehealth services means that older adults are not forced to jeopardize their health by going to a doctor’s office, and that they can access care even if they live in rural areas or are unable to get to a doctor’s office.
Now, in order to continue to protect older adults, both CMS and Congress are proposing actions to continue the expansion of telehealth. CMS Administrator Seema Verma announced that telehealth and telemedicine will be expanded to Medicare beneficiaries even after the pandemic is over. “I can’t imagine going back,” said Verma of returning to normal doctor’s visits. Now Medicare beneficiaries won’t have to. Congress is also trying to continue the expansion of telehealth services with their bipartisan Helping Ensure Access to Local TeleHealth (HEALTH) Act. If passed, this bill would mean that community health clinics and clinics in rural areas would continue to get reimbursement for telehealth services.
The Temporary Expansion
CMS has been allowing telehealth services to cover more than 100 medical services since the CARES Act was signed into law in March of this year. This piece of legislation included provisions that removed restrictions on a patient’s location when receiving telehealth services, and permitted CMS to waive any Medicare reimbursement requirements.
Both providers and patients across the country have been taking advantage of the availability of telehealth services since the beginning of the pandemic. Medicare patients have been able to safely access both physical and mental health services throughout these hard times. But as state and federal governments enter their reopening phases, some of the expanded access to telehealth services is beginning to expire.
“Through the temporary telehealth changes thus far, community health center patients have been able to access primary care and behavioral health services while physically distancing to limit spread of coronavirus. However, patients and providers alike will benefit from permanent telehealth access even once the virus is under control,” Chris Shank, CEO and president of the North Carolina Community Health Center Association said in a statement.
Possible Changes Ahead
As state and federal governments enter their reopening phases, some of the expanded access to telehealth services is beginning to expire. CMS is seeking to stop this expiration and to:
- Allow telehealth services to be covered under Medicare permanently
- Remove “originating site facility and location requirements for distant site telehealth services.” In other words, community health centers and clinics would be able to service anyone in any location.
- Reimburse community health centers and rural clinics for telehealth services
Congress is also trying to make sure that telehealth is accessible to seniors who could have trouble reaching a provider, as well as to those who receive care through federally qualified health centers. If passed, the HEALTH Act would mean that these community health centers and rural health clinics will continue to be reimbursed by Medicare for telehealth services. The HEALTH Act would provide “permanent cost-related payments for telehealth services furnished by federally qualified health centers [FQHC] and rural health clinics under the Medicare program.”
“The changes that we can make through the standard rule-making process, actions such as adding services to the telehealth list and making those permanent, those will appear in the physician fee rule,” said Emily Yoder, an analyst in CMS’ Division of Practitioner Services, while speaking during the American Telemedicine Association’s virtual conference.
Telehealth has become the new normal, and many Medicare beneficiaries have become dependent on it, especially those who have trouble accessing in-person care. The proposal to expand some telehealth services even after the pandemic is over is a welcome one for seniors who rely on telemedicine to get the care they need.