Published December 15, 2020
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It’s official: Medicare telehealth benefits are now permanent.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released its annual Physician Fee Schedule (PFS) final rule on Dec. 1. The recent expansion of Medicare telehealth coverage that was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic has now been made permanent.
“Medicare beneficiaries will now be able to receive dozens of new services via telehealth, and we’ll keep exploring ways to deliver Americans access to healthcare in the setting that they and their doctor decide makes sense for them.” - Alex Azar, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services1
Telehealth, or telemedicine, allows patients to receive certain health care services via electronic information and telecommunication technologies. The use of telehealth is valuable for those who live in rural areas, lack reliable transportation or have mobility difficulties.
During the novel coronavirus pandemic, telehealth was instrumental in helping people stay out of doctor’s offices and health clinics where their risk for COVID-19 exposure may have been heightened.
Prior to the pandemic, Medicare covered only a limited number of telehealth services.
After a Public Health Emergency was declared on Jan. 31, 2020, in response to COVID-19, Medicare added 144 medical services to its list of telehealth coverage. Between March and October of 2020, more than 1 out of every 3 Medicare beneficiaries have received a Medicare-covered telehealth service.
There had long been speculation that Medicare would eventually declare the temporary coverage expansion permanent. A May 19 executive order directed various departments to consider the move. Participants for the payment model will be selected in June of 2021, and the new model will launch in January of 2022 for two consecutive runs of three years each.
“The pandemic accentuated just how transformative [telehealth] could be, and several months in, it’s clear that the healthcare system has adapted seamlessly to a historic telehealth expansion that inaugurates a new era in healthcare delivery,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma.1
In August, President Trump issued an Executive Order on Improving Rural Health and Telehealth Access that added more than 60 services to Medicare telehealth coverage. These newly-covered services are specifically aimed at beneficiaries in rural areas who have limited access to in-person medical care.
The CMS also announced a commissioned study of its telehealth coverage provided during the Public Health Emergency.
1 CMS. (Dec. 1, 2020). Trump Administration Finalizes Permanent Expansion of Medicare Telehealth Services and Improved Payment for Time Doctors Spend with Patients [press release]. Retrieved from https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/press-releases/trump-administration-finalizes-permanent-expansion-medicare-telehealth-services-and-improved-payment.