Predicted to increase over the last decade, it wasn’t until the pandemic that telehealth really began to take off.
The healthcare industry saw an unprecedented rise in telehealth amidst the pandemic, and this trend will continue, according to industry leaders at the Value-Based Care Summit | Telehealth20: Virtual Series.
The vast majority (91%) of conference attendees said the role of telehealth had increased at their organization since March 2020. And over two-thirds (68%) were explicitly motivated to participate in telehealth programs because of COVID-19.
An overwhelming majority (96%) of attendees believe telehealth’s role will continue to grow in the industry. Only 4% of respondents believe telehealth’s role will stay the same.
Organizations will continue building their telehealth programs to support success—68% said they planned to further invest in telehealth following the public health emergency. Another 44% said they plan to invest in IT infrastructure and capabilities, which support telehealth solutions. Robust IT capabilities allow telehealth programs to thrive.
“CMS’ rapid changes to telehealth care are a godsend to patients and providers and [allow] people to be treated in the safety of their home,” said Seema Verma, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator, in an earlier press release. “The changes we are making will help make telehealth more widely available in Medicare Advantage and are part of larger efforts to advance telehealth.”
Telehealth helps reduce disparities in care.
The expansion of telehealth coverage has provided care opportunities for rural populations that didn’t exist before. Now, a new bill introduced this week in the House would ensure Medicare coverage for telehealth services provided by federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) and rural health clinics (RHCs) and eliminate the originating site facility and location requirements for distant site telehealth services.
The bill, the Helping to Ensure Access to Local Telehealth (HEALTH) Act of 2020, would make permanent connected health coverage included in the CARES Act, which only lasts as long as the COVID-19 emergency, and bring into the spotlight one of the most troubling barriers to widespread telehealth adoption.
“Patients and providers alike will benefit from permanent telehealth access even once the virus is under control,” Chris Shank, CEO and President of the North Carolina Community Health Center Association said in a press release. “Allowing patients to connect virtually to their health care provider removes significant barriers like transportation, which disproportionately affects patients with lower incomes and those living in rural communities. The HEALTH Act will reduce longstanding barriers to healthcare access by reducing red tape and providing sustainable reimbursement for telehealth services provided by community health centers.”
The nation’s current economic problems and the soaring unemployment rate will leave millions without health insurance and potentially push them toward the roughly 1,400 FQHCs and 4,300 RHCs. Many of these facilities predominately provide care for underserved populations and communities. Prior to COVID-19, these facilities weren’t considered a distant site for telehealth by CMS, so opportunities for reimbursement were few and far between. The HEALTH Act aims to permanently change that.
More providers want equal telehealth reimbursement after COVID-19.
The American College of Physicians wrote a letter to Seema Verma on June 4, 2020 stating, “Changes in payment policy address some of the biggest issues facing physicians as they struggle to make up for lost revenue and provide appropriate care to patients.”
The letter went on say, ““This extension should last at least through the end of 2021, or until such a time when effective vaccines and treatments are widely available, with an option to extend it even further, or consider making permanent, based on the experience and learnings of patients and physicians who are utilizing these visits.”
Many private payers have followed Medicare, enacting their own telehealth coverage and reimbursement policies during the crisis. This led to a 4,347 percent increase in telehealth claim lines among the privately insured population from March 2019 to March 2020.
But the telehealth flexibilities are only temporary, expiring at the end of the public health emergency period—a restriction providers are saying could result in the closures of organizations already struggling to make ends meet.
“Given the uncertainly around the timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment, many expect that the virus will continue to spread well into 2021,” the College stated. “Therefore, as the need to contain the virus and maintain appropriate social distancing protocols continues into next year, it is unlikely that in-person visits to practices will return to pre-pandemic levels as patients remain uncomfortable with making these in-person visits and physicians schedule fewer patients to be seen in the office.”
Payment parity, as well as clear telehealth billing guidance from CMS, is necessary for ensuring a smooth and safe transition to normal operations for the healthcare industry, the College stated. But others are also urging policymakers to consider permanent implementation of other telehealth billing flexibilities, such as the ability to provide care remotely in the homes of patients.
So, is telehealth here to stay? The CMS Administrator and industry experts say, YES!
We hope you all are staying safe and healthy.