CMS Leans Toward Permanent Expansion of Telemedicine Access

Massive expansion to telemedicine access by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in the weeks since the coronavirus pandemic began has already rapidly shifted both the health-care and telehealth industries, and the government appears to be leaning in favor of making some of these changes permanent.

“I think it’s fair to say that the advent of telehealth has been just completely accelerated,” said CMS Administrator Seema Verma. “It’s taken this crisis to push us to a new frontier, but there’s absolutely no going back.”

CMS reported that in March, telehealth visits for Medicare beneficiaries jumped from about 10,000 per week to 300,000 per week, and that number will likely keep rising as the pandemic continues. In April, CMS expanded telemedicine coverage for Medicare recipients to include physical and occupational therapists, speech pathologists, and psychiatric care. Previous federal orders had already attempted to equalize pay between in-person and telemedicine visits and lift privacy restrictions on the use of popular platforms like Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime.

In May, CMS finalized the expansion of telehealth coverage for seniors enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans, expanding supplement benefits through 2021 for patients with chronic diseases and those located in rural areas.

There is not yet any systematic analysis on how the dramatic growth of telemedicine is affecting health care outcomes, but anecdotal reviews from doctors and patients suggest the new rules have made care more convenient.

“One of the comments we get most frequently from patients is that they have more face time with the physician during telemedicine visits than they do when they’re in person,” said Robert Bart, MD, Chief Medical Information Officer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “It’s an interesting paradox. Physicians can focus on the electronic medical record and the screen at the same time, so the eye-to-eye contact is much higher.”

Sources: STAT, May 7, 2020. The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2020; CMS press release, May 22, 2020.