On Tuesday morning, March 17, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced a temporary but sweeping change around the approval of and reimbursement for telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries.
In a press release posted to its website, CMS noted that “The Trump Administration today announced expanded Medicare telehealth coverage that will enable beneficiaries to receive a wider range of healthcare services from their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility. Beginning on March 6, 2020, Medicare—administered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)—will temporarily pay clinicians to provide telehealth services for beneficiaries residing across the entire country.”
The press release quoted CMS Administrator Seema Verma as stating that “The Trump Administration is taking swift and bold action to give patients greater access to care through telehealth during the COVID-19 outbreak. These changes allow seniors to communicate with their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility so that they can limit risk of exposure and spread of this virus. Clinicians on the frontlines will now have greater flexibility to safely treat our beneficiaries,” Verma said.
The press release went on to state that, “On March 13, 2020, President Trump announced an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act. Consistent with President Trump’s emergency declaration, CMS is expanding Medicare’s telehealth benefits under the 1135 waiver authority and the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. This guidance and other recent actions by CMS provide regulatory flexibility to ensure that all Americans—particularly high-risk individuals—are aware of easy-to-use, accessible benefits that can help keep them healthy while helping to contain the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Prior to this announcement, Medicare was only allowed to pay clinicians for telehealth services such as routine visits in certain circumstances. For example, the beneficiary receiving the services must live in a rural area and travel to a local medical facility to get telehealth services from a doctor in a remote location. In addition, the beneficiary would generally not be allowed to receive telehealth services in their home.”
The press release noted that “The Trump Administration previously expanded telehealth benefits. Over the last two years, Medicare expanded the ability for clinicians to have brief check-ins with their patients through phone, video chat and online patient portals, referred to as “virtual check-ins”. These services are already available to beneficiaries and their physicians, providing a great deal of flexibility, and an easy way for patients who are concerned about illness to remain in their home avoiding exposure to others. A range of healthcare providers, such as doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers, will be able to offer telehealth to Medicare beneficiaries. Beneficiaries will be able to receive telehealth services in any healthcare facility including a physician’s office, hospital, nursing home or rural health clinic, as well as from their homes.”
Further, “Medicare beneficiaries will be able to receive various services through telehealth including common office visits, mental health counseling, and preventive health screenings. This will help ensure Medicare beneficiaries, who are at a higher risk for COVID-19, are able to visit with their doctor from their home, without having to go to a doctor’s office or hospital which puts themselves or others at risk. This change broadens telehealth flexibility without regard to the diagnosis of the beneficiary, because at this critical point it is important to ensure beneficiaries are following guidance from the CDC including practicing social distancing to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. This change will help prevent vulnerable beneficiaries from unnecessarily entering a healthcare facility when their needs can be met remotely. “
In that regard, the press release noted, “President Trump’s announcement comes at a critical time as these flexibilities will help healthcare institutions across the nation offer some medical services to patients remotely, so that healthcare facilities like emergency departments and doctor’s offices are available to deal with the most urgent cases and reduce the risk of additional infections. For example, a Medicare beneficiary can visit with a doctor about their diabetes management or refilling a prescription using telehealth without having to travel to the doctor’s office. As a result, the doctor’s office is available to treat more people who need to be seen in-person and it mitigates the spread of the virus. As part of this announcement, patients will now be able to access their doctors using a wider range of communication tools including telephones that have audio and video capabilities, making it easier for beneficiaries and doctors to connect.”
In a live White House press briefing, Verma noted that she is encouraging both state governments and private health insurers to follow CMS’s lead.
And during that press briefing, Verma said that it will be important for the federal government not to “get in the way of [providers] handling an emergency. While we have allowed for virtual check-ins, full telehealth regulations have focused on those in rural areas. Now, Medicare beneficiaries living across the nation will be able to access telehealth” services, in such locations as “nursing homes, hospital outpatient departments, and more.” And, referring to the Department of Health and Human Services, she said, “Thanks to leadership of HHS, we’ll be temporarily relaxing certain HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996] regulations so that doctors can use their phones” to provide telehealth-based care. “This is a part of larger efforts around mitigation.”