- The Trump administration on Tuesday said telemedicine services would be temporarily be covered by Medicare, the latest policy change in response to COVID-19, the disease causes by the new 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 in effect.
Patients covered by Medicare can now visit virtually with any doctor at no added cost than an in-office visit. Additionally, 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 fast-spreading outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, as the new coronavirus is called. More than 4,200 cases in the U.S. have been confirmed through Mar. 17, and 75 people have died, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But virtual care companies are struggling to meet demand as a surging volume of "worried well" use their portals to screen symptoms with a doctor before going into the hospital, where they could infect others.
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 the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to use section 1135 waiver authority to temporarily sidestep regulatory barriers that have stopped telehealth providers from expanding, including a requirement that participating doctors must be certified in the state the patient lives in.
Health policy experts commended the step, though some said it could have come sooner.
Very glad to see Trump use 1135 waivers to eliminate telehealth payment constraints in Medicare and HIPAA barriers to video chat, etc.— Emily Schlichting (@easchlichting) March 17, 2020
Incredibly important to keep seniors out of clinics and hospitals unless absolutely necessary.
And something @ewarren called for last week.
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 Mar. 6 for the same amount as in-person visits. The Health and Human Services 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 statement following the president's 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.