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Medicare Telehealth Use Soars During COVID-19 Pandemic

1 in 4 beneficiaries 'saw' their medical provider remotely, study finds

spinner image A man talks with his doctor on a laptop
Getty Images

More than three times as many Medicare beneficiaries have had access to their regular medical professional over the phone or via a video visit during the COVID-19 pandemic than before the health crisis, according to a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).

In recent years, telehealth visits have become an increasingly popular way for people, especially in rural areas, to have appointments with their medical professionals, but Medicare had limited telehealth coverage benefits. In early 2020, Medicare expanded its coverage of such visits to enable all enrollees to keep up with their medical care while minimizing their exposure risk to the coronavirus. These expanded benefits will continue as long as the COVID-19 public health emergency remains in effect. The emergency was extended in April and no expiration date has been set.

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According to the brief from the nonpartisan KFF, the expansion of telehealth benefits has been particularly important to people with disabilities who are low income and among communities of color. This suggests, the study says, “that the temporary expansion of telehealth coverage may be helping some of Medicare's more disadvantaged populations continue to access needed care."

A number of bills have been introduced in Congress that would make permanent some or all of the telehealth expansion for Medicare beneficiaries.

Nearly two-thirds of Medicare beneficiaries report access to Telehealth appointments

spinner image charts showing how many survey participants have telemedicine availability before covid and now
Kaiser Family Foundation

The KFF report was based on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services survey of beneficiaries during the summer and fall of 2020. Some key findings:

  • Among the 95 percent of Medicare enrollees who have a regular source of medical care, 64 percent said their provider now offers a telehealth option. By comparison, only 18 percent said their health care professional offered such visits before the pandemic.
  • Forty-five percent of those on Medicare whose providers offer telehealth had a telehealth visit between the summer and fall of 2020.
  • Telehealth was most popular among those with six or more chronic conditions (56 percent), those enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid (55 percent), Blacks (52 percent) and Hispanics (52 percent).

Technology could be an issue

Under Medicare's pre-pandemic telehealth rules, beneficiaries had to conduct a telehealth visit using both an audio and video connection. But during the COVID-19 crisis, the emergency rules allow patients to communicate with their medical providers using only the phone.

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In its report, KFF says that a majority (56 percent) of Medicare beneficiaries said they had their telehealth visit using only the phone, while 28 percent did so via video and 16 percent used both video and the telephone. In addition, 75 percent of those age 75 and older, 65 percent of Hispanics, and 61 percent of those living in rural areas reported using only a telephone for their telehealth visits.

"Given that the majority of Medicare beneficiaries in our analysis reported accessing telehealth services by telephone only, an expanded telehealth benefit that requires two-way video communication could be a barrier to care for subgroups of the Medicare population that relied more heavily on telephones than video-capable devices during the pandemic,” the study found.

Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.

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