Telehealth services are being expanded under Medicare in an effort to mitigate the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), President Donald Trump announced Tuesday.1

In a press briefing with the Coronavirus Task Force, Trump said the expansion of telehealth services allows more patients to communicate with physicians through digital services, such as Skype and Facetime. He indicated that the goals of the expansion are to maintain social distancing and to avoid overburdening hospitals with patients.1

“This is a historic breakthrough,” Trump said.1 “It’s been a very successful method of communication, but never used on [this large of a] scale.”

CMS Administrator Seema Verma said the “dramatic expansion” will benefit the 62 million beneficiaries across the country enrolled in Medicare. Previously, she said, full telehealth services were limited to patients who met certain criteria, including those mostly in rural areas of the United States who had difficulty accessing medical care. However, these services are now accessible in more homes and in a variety of care facilities.1

“This is part of our larger effort around mitigation [of COVID-19],” Verma said.1

By Tuesday afternoon, the CDC had 4226 reported cases in the United States and 75 deaths due to COVID-19. These cases included both confirmed and presumptive positive cases reported to the CDC or tested at a CDC site since January 21, 2020. The numbers do not include individuals repatriated to the United States from Wuhan, China and Japan.2

Medicare beneficiaries will be able to receive various services through telehealth, including common office visits, mental health counseling, and preventive health screenings.3 Verma said consultations with physicians can be made remotely, allowing patients to avoid leaving their homes and putting themselves at higher risk of contracting the virus. 1

An example of patients who can now benefit from telehealth services are those individuals with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, that require routine checkups.

“Medicare patients that don’t absolutely need to come into an office, don’t have to,” Verma said.1

Clinicians can bill immediately for dates of service starting March 6, 2020. Telehealth services are paid under the Physician Fee Schedule at the same amount as in-person services. Medicare coinsurance and deductibles still apply for these services, according to CMS. Additionally, there is flexibility for health care providers to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits paid by federal health care programs.3


According to Trump, regarding Medicare’s telehealth services, no penalties will be pursued under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act during the COVID-19 pandemic. No additional costs to patients are expected.1


REFERENCES
 
  1. Coronavirus Task Force. Press briefing. March 17, 2020.
  2. CDC. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Cases & Latest Updates. CDC website. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fcases-in-us.html Updated March 17, 2020. Accessed March 17, 2020.
  3. President Trump Expands Telehealth Benefits for Medicare Beneficiaries During COVID-19 Outbreak [news release]. Baltimore, MD; March 17, 2020: CMS [email]. Accessed March 17, 2020.