Medicare will now cover telehealth to fight coronavirus

By | March 18, 2020

Dive Brief:

  • The Trump administration on Tuesday said telemedicine services would be temporarily be covered by Medicare for beneficiaries, the latest policy change in response to COVID-19, the disease causes by the novel coronavirus.
  • “Medicare patients can now visit any doctor by phone or video conference at no additional cost, including with commonly used services like FaceTime and Skype,” President Donald Trump said Tuesday at a White House coronavirus briefing. ​
  • Medicare has never covered virtual care services to this extent. It’s a move telemedicine companies like Teladoc and American Well have been requesting since well before the outbreak, but the change is scheduled to be in place only for as long as the COVID-19 national emergency is designated.

Dive Insight:

In addition to the ability for beneficiaries to visit any doctor virtually at no further cost than an in-office visit, HIPAA privacy law penalties regarding telehealth use will no longer be enforced, allowing doctors to expand care, Trump said.

Telehealth is being used as a tool to limit exposure and free up hospital capacity during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Virtual care companies are struggling to meet demand as a surging volume of the so-called “worried well” use their portals to screen symptoms with a doctor before going into the hospital, where they could infect other patients or healthcare providers.

Publicly traded companies like Teladoc have seen their stock soar as the coronavirus has hopped across borders, spreading to most of the world.

Teladoc investors were upbeat on the heels of the coronavirus task force update, sending the Purchase, New York-based vendor’s stock up more than 10% midday. The company’s CEO, Jason Gorevic, said on its 2019 earnings call last month the influx of new users would “feed the flywheel” that drives visit growth over time, helping Teladoc’s topline.

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Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Medicare could only pay for a small subset of telemedicine visits, like for beneficiaries in rural areas or patients already in a hospital.

The national emergency declared Friday frees up CMS to use section 1135 waiver authority to temporarily eschew regulatory barriers that have stopped telehealth providers from expanding their services, including that participating doctors must be certified in the state the patient lives in.

Health policy experts applauded the move, though some said it could have come sooner.

Private insurers are also turning to telemedicine amid the outbreak. Anthem, for example, said it would waive any cost-sharing for virtual visits for 90 days.

Clinicians can retroactively bill for telehealth services starting March 6 for the same amount as in-person visits. The HHS Office of the Inspector General is also telling providers to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits paid for by federal healthcare programs.

CMS clarified in a press release following the president’s morning speech that telehealth will be available to all Medicare beneficiaries, regardless of whether the visit is related to COVID-19. That includes services like regular office visits, mental health counseling and preventive health screenings.

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