CMS expands Medicare telehealth services to fight COVID-19

March 17, 2020



The Trump administration on Monday announced that it will expand telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries and cut back on HIPAA enforcement, the latest move to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Medicare will pay doctors and hospitals for a broad range of telehealth services on a temporary basis, effective March 6. The program will pay for office and hospital telehealth visits and include a wide range of providers including nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists and social workers. Telehealth visits will be reimbursed for the same amount as in-person visits.

“These services can also be provided in a variety of settings, including nursing homes, hospital outpatient departments and more,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said.

HHS will also temporarily relax some HIPAA requirements to allow doctors to provide telehealth services with their personal phones and use enforcement discretion related to copays “so that cost won’t be a barrier,” Verma said. HHS’ Office for Civil Rights will allow providers to deliver telehealth services for any diagnostic or treatment purpose, even it’s unrelated to COVID-19, so long as they do so “in good faith.”

“Providers are encouraged to notify patients that these third-party applications potentially introduce privacy risks, and providers should enable all available encryption and privacy modes when using such applications,” HHS’ Office for Civil Rights said in a notice.

Public-facing apps such as Facebook Live, Twitch and TikTok shouldn’t be used because they’re most likely to jeopardize patient privacy.

The administration is also asking state Medicaid agencies to offer telehealth services since they don’t require federal approval.

Officials hope that increased telehealth use will reduce Medicare beneficiaries’ exposure to the coronavirus and slow the spread of the illness. Older adults are more vulnerable to COVID-19 than younger adults and children.

Telehealth services were previously only available to rural Medicare enrollees if they received telehealth services at a clinic, hospital or other medical facilities. They couldn’t receive telehealth services from home.

Medicare has three basic types of telehealth services: Medicare telehealth visits, virtual check-ins and e-visits.

The CMS considers Medicare telehealth visits the same as in-person visits, and they require real-time communication between providers and patients using both audio and video.

Virtual check-ins are brief communications between doctors and patients, such as text messaging. Providers can deliver virtual check-ins using a range of communications since they don’t require both audio and video capability. The CMS expects that patients will initiate most virtual check-ins by, for example, emailing their primary-care doctor.

E-visits involve care delivered through a patient portal, which requires providers to have a preexisting relationship with a Medicare beneficiary.

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