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Medicare Expands Coverage of Telemedicine in Fight Against Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Follow our Medicare Coronavirus News page for related information on coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on Medicare beneficiaries.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced March 17 that Medicare will temporarily pay clinicians nationwide for telemedicine (or telehealth) services. The measure is intended to help seniors stay in their homes and to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Telemedicine allows health care professionals to evaluate, diagnose and treat patients from a distance, using telecommunication technology such as the telephone or online video chat software.

Examples of telemedicine include:

  • Video consultations with specialists
  • Digital transmission of medical imaging such as X-rays and MRIs
  • Remote monitoring of vital signs

The approach is still relatively new but has become an increasingly important part of the U.S. health care system in recent years. 

How does Medicare cover telehealth during the coronavirus outbreak?

Medicare already covers a limited number of telemedicine services under certain restrictions.

With the new guidance from the CMS, doctors, nurses, clinical psychologists and licensed clinical social workers can offer telemedicine services to Medicare beneficiaries from any health care facility, and even from their own home. 

Some privately sold Medicare Advantage plans (Medicare Part C) have already offered coverage for certain telemedicine services.

New telehealth Medicare coverage could help those at increased COVID-19 risk

Older adults and those with underlying health conditions are at a greater risk of developing severe symptoms or dying from COVID-19.

Some of these older adults have been faced with a difficult decision: Visit a health care facility, thereby increasing their risk of exposure, or skip medical appointments and forego the care they need.

Under the new measures, Medicare beneficiaries will be able to receive certain care services from home, which minimizes their risk for infection.

These services could include common doctor’s office visits, mental health counseling and preventive health screenings using remote technology.

Medicare is offering coverage for any telemedicine services that date back to March 6, 2020. Telemedicine services will be paid by Medicare at the same rate as in-person services. Any Medicare deductibles and coinsurance or copayments will still apply.

The coverage of such telemedicine services are temporary and may be lifted once the threat of COVID-19 has been mitigated. However, if coverage of telemedicine proves its worth during the current pandemic, it could become a more permanent inclusion.  

Seniors who are not well-versed in the necessary technology to conduct telemedicine are asked to rely on friends or relatives for help.

Medicare has already taken a number of steps to combat the COVID-19 outbreak including ramping up protection of nursing home residents, free testing of COVID-19 and loosening restrictions on prescription drug refills.