Since the spring, telemedicine has become a familiar option for many Washingtonians who had never before visited virtually with a doctor or therapist.
That includes nearly one in three of the state’s Medicare recipients, thanks to a dramatic — but temporary — expansion in the national health insurance program’s coverage of telehealth. That change should be made permanent.
Since March, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has begun covering more than 135 types of different telehealth visits, from routine visits to emergency consultations to rehabilitation and home health care. CMS intends to keep covering many of types of telehealth services after the pandemic is over. That’s an important start.
Under emergency rules, every Medicare recipient has been able to access telemedicine from any location, including their home. That’s helped fuel a rapid adoption of this once-niche service. Take the University of Washington medical system, for example, where about 11% of pre-pandemic Medicare patients participated in telemedicine. Since June, that figure has been closer to 20%.
Overall, the UW system saw skyrocketing adoption of telehealth services, from 168 telemedicine visits in February to 33,829 in May. Even with social distancing restrictions loosening in recent months, UW providers are recording more than 21,000 telemedicine visits per month, according to data from the provider.
In many cases video, or even telephone, medical appointments can be an efficient supplement to in-person care. That’s particularly true for people with mobility issues, and for the frail, medically complex and at-risk patients who make up a sizable portion of Medicare’s participants.
But it will take a change in federal law to make permanent some of the most useful of Medicare’s emergency expansions. That includes telehealth services for patients outside rural areas, allowing patients to access telehealth services from any location, and using consumer-friendly technology like Skype, FaceTime or Zoom.
Although nearly two dozen telehealth-related bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress, by the American Telemedicine Association’s count, experts say lawmakers have been slow to pick up the subject in recent years. This time, they should.
It’s one thing for CMS to cover services, another to ensure patients can access those services. Congress should step in to help.