Telehealth’s Courtship of Medicare Heats Up

September’s been a big month for 21st Century technology making overtures to the 50-something Medicare benefit.

It’s all about telehealth—patients at home connecting to their doctors; patients in doctors’ offices connecting to another professional elsewhere, etc.

On Sept. 13, two House panels approved bills that would expand beneficiaries’ access to telehealth services.

First, the House Ways and Means unanimously approved a measure that would expand telehealth access for Medicare managed care beneficiaries. It would let Medicare Advantage plans include telehealth as a base benefit, rather than a supplemental benefit.  House Budget Committee Chairman Diane Black (R-Tenn.), a registered nurse, is one of the bill's sponsors.

Later that day, the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee approved a measure that would expand to cities Medicare payment for a neurological consultation through telemedicine for suspected stroke patients who live in rural areas.

On Sept. 11, comments were due to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on a doctor rule that proposes to add next year seven new codes or services to the list of Medicare telehealth services. The agency said it expects the changes might improve access to care in rural areas.

On Sept. 7, some of Congress’s Medicare advisers rooted for more telehealth in a session at their September meeting. The 21st Century Cures Act required the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) to report on the extent to which Medicare and commercial  plans cover telehealth services.

Use of telehealth services under Medicare's physician fee schedule jumped from 2014 to 2016, MedPAC staff said. Patients’ telehealth visits increased from 5.3 to 9.5 per 1,000 beneficiaries in 2016. Spending for these services went from $16 million to $27 million.

Telehealth should not be seen as a luxury, MedPAC Commissioner Craig Samitt said. “It very much helps contribute to the necessary innovation in care delivery reform,” he said. Samitt is chief clinical officer at Anthem.

So with all the sparks flying this month, perhaps some will ignite an increase in Medicare’s coverage of these services.

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