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October 21, 2020

Maintaining Expanded Telehealth Access Beyond COVID-19

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has worked steadily to ensure that patients and communities have access to expanded telehealth services by issuing regulatory waivers and adding new telehealth services for reimbursement. Last week CMS announced that 11 new telehealth services will be reimbursable by Medicare during the COVID-19 public health emergency. According to CMS administrator Seema Verma, the agency is “taking action to increase telehealth adoption across the country. This revolutionary method of improving access to care is transforming healthcare delivery in America. President Trump will not let the genie go back in the bottle.”

With those 11 new services, it makes for a total of 144 new telehealth services that have been enlisted for Medicare reimbursement since the COVID-19 public health emergency began in March. In addition to the expansion of reimbursable telehealth services under Medicare, CMS also released a preliminary Medicaid and CHIP data snapshot that shows more than 34.5 million services delivered via telehealth to beneficiaries between March and June of this year. That represents more than a 2,600% increase compared to data from 2019.

While telehealth advocates never wanted to see it happen under these circumstances, 2020 will be the year that regulating agencies and healthcare providers made the biggest leaps in increasing access to telemedicine. For years SCHA has supported the expansion of telehealth use in South Carolina, and as we continue to utilize more remote care options that allow patients to be seen safely from their homes, there should be a close analysis of what policies and services we may want to maintain after the public health emergency finally ends.

After all, the U.S. will now have a trove of data on telehealth utilization that can be used by policymakers to make informed decisions about how we can continue to make healthcare more accessible in America. For example, a recently released UCLA study shows that telehealth can help reduce stress factors and discomfort for people living with chronic pain. According to the study, for the patients who chose to perform their consults via telehealth, it saved them an average of 26 miles of driving distance, 69 minutes in traffic per trip, and $22 on gas and parking. In addition, the patients that chose telehealth had a 92% satisfaction rate.

Recently CMS administrator Seema Verna indicated that the Administration plans to review its policymaking under the pandemic to determine which changes will remain once the country emerges from the public health emergency. In a comment letter sent to Verna this month, the American Hospital Association (AHA) said “we support CMS’s proposal that would that would allow physicians and non-physician practitioners to continue providing direct supervision via interactive telecommunications technology; we urge the agency to make permanent this policy.”  AHA went on to ask that the agency consider proposals to permanently retain some of the telehealth services added to Medicare during the pandemic to enhance patient access.

To further support efforts to boost telehealth, CMS has released the State Medicaid & CHIP Telehealth Toolkit which includes policy considerations for states expanding telehealth use amid the COVID-19 public health emergency. South Carolina’s hospitals and health systems are grateful for the flexibility and enhanced patient access provided by telehealth during this pandemic and look forward to working with state and federal leaders to continue many of these critical services that expand access to care.