Has Covid-19 Forever Changed Telehealth Coverage?

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The Covid-19 pandemic brought about stringent stay-at-home measures to control the spread of the virus. With how quickly the virus was spreading, general practices were advised to use Telehealth instead of in-person visits whenever it’s possible. That has been a sudden change for most patients and doctors. People have had to adjust to it, leading to 30% of the visits being held remotely.

Throughout the pandemic, many patients have shown satisfaction in Telehealth during the pandemic. It has been a convenient way to get treatment without worrying about the risks of getting infected with the virus.

80% of the patients satisfied with Telehealth services

In a recent survey conducted by the Covid-19 Healthcare coalition, close to 80% of the patients were satisfied with their telehealth visit and planned to continue using these services. Interestingly, the satisfaction was nearly the same whatever the age group, which means that Telehealth is well accepted throughout the population, whatever their age.

It has proven to be most efficient for routine and familiar health issues. It’s significantly more manageable when there’s a pre-existing clinical relationship, but it’s still possible even without one. Consultations went up despite Telehealth being implemented randomly. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Telehealth wasn’t a very familiar word to most people.

Coverage of telehealth services was limited under traditional Medicare. Approximately 100 services that Telehealth provides were paid for by Medicare. There were also limitations on what services could be delivered and which beneficiaries would get access to them. The Covid era has helped create more awareness.

How has Telehealth Coverage changed during the Covid-19 Pandemic?

Virtual health care services reimbursements are continuing to evolve during the pandemic. Medicaid programs and private insurers have now expanded coverage for Telehealth. With the public health emergency of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, if a health care provider is eligible to bill Medicare, they can bill for telehealth services. This is regardless of where the health care provider or the patient is located. Coverage for Telehealth has been expanded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

For the billing and coding, more Medicare Fee-to-Fee Services (FFS) are now billable as Telehealth. Medicare billing acts as a safety-net provider. The Rural Health Clinics (RHCs) and Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) can bill Medicare for virtual health services. The Covid-19 reimbursements are different from state to state for the state Medicaid telehealth coverage, but the waivers do allow broad coverage for Telehealth through Medicaid.

Many private insurance providers have broadened coverage for Telehealth during the pandemic. Reimbursements are being issued to health care providers for testing, treating, and testing people who aren’t insured for Covid-19. This includes related services that are provided through virtual Telehealth consultations.

Have the Changes Been Beneficial?

In the wake of the pandemic, policymakers are mainly looking to Telehealth as crucial to ensuring each and every beneficiary of Medicare can still access care while not being at risk of contracting the virus. It has had the potential to address many of the main challenges experienced in providing health services during the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, only beneficiaries who lived in rural areas could get access to traditional Medicare. There were also restrictions on where beneficiaries would receive the services and which providers would deliver them. However, with the public health emergency declaration due to Covid-19 by the government, the traditional coverage by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

This has made it easy for all beneficiaries to get medical care. However, after the public health emergency ends, Telehealth services will go back to how they were before the pandemic. Policymakers are somehow working on bills to make these changes permanent and shape a new future for Telehealth.

What are the plans for lawmakers to make changes more permanent?

Many lawmakers are trying to maintain the current expanded access to Telehealth even after the pandemic. They’re insisting it improves the quality and cost of health care, as well as availability. Lawmakers are saying it doesn’t make sense to go back to the traditional use of Telehealth coverage.

The access to Telemedicine has been strengthened by the different provisions in the CARES Act by reducing rules and providing funds. These are the policies lawmakers want entrenched in standard operating procedures. Only 13,000 Medicare beneficiaries received Telehealth services before the pandemic, but the number grew to over 1.7 million afterward.

Telemedicine was listed as a top area in which the federal government should invest by Dr. Robert Wah, former associate chief information officer for the Military Health System. A letter was sent to the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Administrator Seema Verma by a bipartisan group of 38 senators. The letter called for changes that allowed for extended use of Telehealth services to patients and care providers.

The support for Medicare Telehealth reimbursements gained steam in Congress. There was considerable support in Congress to expand access to Telehealth. Nevertheless, there is still some debate about payments, timing, and flexibilities even after the pandemic public health emergency expires. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported the modality, especially allowing traditional Medicare to reimburse for the service.

What is the Future of Telehealth Coverage?

The Covid-19 pandemic boosted how much Telehealth services are used. The fear of the unknown regarding reimbursements and long-term patient enthusiasm makes it challenging to decide whether it’s worth investing in. The demand might go down because providers might be eager to have patients back in the clinic.

However, there’s no going back to where we used to be because going back to in-person visits might be harmful to a practice’s outlook in the long run. In the future, it won’t be possible for care providers to ignore Telehealth as an option. Therefore, most care providers should consider investing in Telehealth because it’s going to be critical.

There is a tremendous amount of potential for the future of Telemedicine, but a lot depends on reimbursements for general acceptance. According to a survey done on 73% of physicians said low or no reimbursements are the main challenge. Other problems relate to liabilities.

Most physicians are open to continuing the use of Telemedicine managed appointments for chronic diseases after the pandemic. That would be followed by preventive care, care coordination, and medical management. For most visits, approximately 20% will remain remote.

For the rest, the question lies in patients’ will to consider it safe to return to in-person visits, which leaves the question of whether Telehealth benefits will have a future after the pandemic. Time only will tell.

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