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Medicare Expands Telehealth Services in Response to Coronavirus

Virtual doctor visits limit exposure risk, slow spread of outbreak

spinner image  woman with tablet pc during an online consultation with her doctor in her living room
Anja Schaefer / Alamy Stock Photo

As federal officials continue to urge Americans – particularly older adults – to stay in their homes to stem the spread of the coronavirus, President Donald Trump on Tuesday said telehealth options for Medicare recipients are being expanded and made easier to take advantage of.

"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,” Trump said at a White House briefing. The administration is also relaxing federal health privacy laws so providers can use a wider variety of technologies to treat their patients remotely.

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"These changes allow seniors to communicate with their doctors without having to travel to a health care facility so that they can limit risk of exposure and spread of this virus,” Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), said at Tuesday's briefing. “Clinicians on the frontlines will now have greater flexibility to safely treat our beneficiaries,” she added.

Medicare has been gradually ramping up the use of telehealth in recent years. But while Medicare Advantage plans have been allowed to offer liberal telehealth benefits for several years, Original Medicare beneficiaries have had more limited telehealth benefits, amounting to brief virtual check-ins. And beneficiaries would not generally be able to get telehealth services in their own homes. About 40 million Americans are enrolled in Original Medicare.

Tuesday's announcement will allow all Medicare beneficiaries to “see” their doctors remotely for the kind of routine check-ups and monitoring of chronic conditions that would normally be done in a provider's office. A Medicare enrollee, for example, who has diabetes, can now confer with his or her doctor without leaving the house, and a medical professional can order a new medicine or refill a prescription without needing to see the patient in person. Nursing home residents will also be able to have telehealth consultations with their doctors.

And, while regular Medicare copays will apply to telemedicine visits, CMS officials say that during the coronavirus emergency, providers can waive or reduce cost-sharing for telehealth visits.

"Clinicians on the frontlines will now have greater flexibility to safely treat our beneficiaries.” Verma said in a statement announcing the telehealth expansion.

Medicare benefits during the outbreak

Government leaders have already outlined a number of ways Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D plans can be more flexible when it comes to certain costs related to COVID-19. Here are some ways CMS says Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D can potentially “mitigate the impact on the health care system” and help speed up access to care, especially for high-risk populations.

• Waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 tests

• Waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatments in doctor's offices or emergency rooms and services delivered via telehealth

• Remove prior authorizations requirements — this is when approval from Medicare is required before a certain service is provided

• Waive prescription refill limits

• Relax restrictions on home or mail delivery of prescriptions.

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