Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, is releasing a new report showing the dramatic utilization trends of telehealth services for primary care delivery in Fee-for-Service (FFS) Medicare in the early days of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The report analyzes claims data from January through early June. The report underscores how telehealth flexibilities, introduced by the Trump Administration to address the care delivery disruptions caused by the pandemic, helped to spur and maintain Medicare beneficiaries' access to their primary care providers.
"As soon as we declared COVID-19 a public health emergency, the Trump Administration took bold and rapid action to dramatically expand services that can be provided via telehealth and make it far more convenient for patients and providers," said HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar. "Today's ASPE report shows that Medicare providers and beneficiaries rapidly embraced these new opportunities. The meteoric rise of telehealth during the pandemic has not only helped us combat the virus, but also prompted a new conversation around the future of patient-centered care."
At the start of the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE), with stay-at-home orders in place and warnings on the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increasing with age, the report found Medicare FFS in-person visits for primary care fell precipitously in mid-March. It then found that in April, nearly half (43.5%) of Medicare primary care visits were provided through telehealth compared with less than one percent (0.1%) in February before the PHE.
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"The Trump Administration has made expanding telehealth a priority for years, but the pandemic has allowed us to push this revolution in healthcare delivery to new frontiers," said CMS Administrator Seema Verma. "This analysis of CMS utilization data demonstrates the speed and effectiveness with which the healthcare system adapted to that change. Countless clinicians and beneficiaries received important care while avoiding unnecessary exposure to the virus. Now that providers and patients have had a taste, it's difficult to imagine the telehealth genie going back into the bottle."
The spike in telehealth visits as a care option is the direct result of actions taken by the Trump Administration. First, with the emergency declarations made by the President and Secretary, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) was able to use waiver authority under section 1135 of the Social Security Act to lift geographic and site of service restrictions to allow telehealth services to be delivered wherever a beneficiary is located, including their home or temporary health care sites. CMS then used emergency rulemaking to add 135 services to the Medicare telehealth services list, and further waiver authority to expand the types of practitioners who can provide telehealth services. Internal CMS analysis has found that before the PHE, only 14,000 beneficiaries received a telehealth service in a week but during the PHE period from mid-March through early-July, over 10.1 million beneficiaries have received a telehealth service.