Equating Medicare with Telemedicine is not something we often did before Coronavirus. However, a pandemic keeping people in their homes, where the senior population is one of the highest-risk groups, changed the game. While limitations to when Medicare recipients could receive access to Telehealth prevented the widespread practice before the pandemic, things quickly changed. “In total, over 9 million beneficiaries have received a Telehealth service during the public health emergency, mid-March through mid-June,” according to Health Affairs.
The way we access the medical community is changing, but will Medicare be given the ability to continue offering this service to members when the pandemic is over?
Before the pandemic, Telemedicine was still a term we were all getting comfortable using. To fully define it, it includes telehealth as well as other virtual services that enable a patient to “visit” a medical professional remotely. As a part of Medicare, Telehealth was only covered in limited circumstances, many of which consisted of the beneficiary being in a rural area, where they still had to travel to a medical facility to receive the virtual care.
The last few years saw some improvements to the inclusion of Telemedicine in Medicare, with additional concessions given for virtual check-ins, brief communication, and certain types of e-visits. However, limits put on usage still posed challenges. Having to communicate through a separate patient portal for each doctor is cumbersome, for example, for someone seeing quite a few specialists.
Now, mobile health apps as well as wearable monitors help connect patients to their medical practitioners without ever having to spend time in an office waiting room. Factoring new technology into Medicare naturally led to the idea of increasing Telehealth benefits, although access was still unavailable across all plans prior to the pandemic.
Saving lives during COVID-19
With the onset of coronavirus, an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act changed how Medicare and Telemedicine interacted. As of March 17, 2020, Medicare Telehealth coverage expanded so that all beneficiaries could access the service from any location, including their homes. The scope of the program grew, and it finally became easier for a larger range of health services to work in this virtual system. Immediately, seniors, already told to stay indoors, could continue receiving proper medical care for many conditions. They could stay out of their doctor’s office, and better yet the hospital, without having to sacrifice their well-being. Today, Telemedicine in Medicare includes:
- Expanded access outside of rural areas.
- A total of 135 allowable services accessible via Telehealth.
- Inclusion of Telehealth technologies to make face-to-face visits easier, safer, and more efficient.
- A wider variety of practitioners able to provide Telehealth services.
Addressing mental health
Another key feature of Telemedicine is its ability to support mental health. During the pandemic, according to Medicare statistics, around 460,000 beneficiaries received Telemental health care. Considering so many seniors were stuck at home, with limited interaction, being able to easily access this type of care has been instrumental in supporting overall health.
Protecting nursing homes
It is also worthwhile to note that Telemedicine has greatly increased the safety of nursing home beneficiaries, many of whom were not willing (or allowed) to leave their facility during the pandemic. Being able to use Telehealth for common office visits and certain preventative health screenings allows them to protect themselves from COVID-19 by not having to go out. Limiting the risk helped vulnerable beneficiaries get their medical needs met remotely.
Telemedicine and Medicare in the future
Whether all the changes temporarily made to Telemedicine in Medicare become permanent after the pandemic remains to be seen. Statistical data is currently making a good argument, considering the number of Medicare beneficiaries who received a Telehealth service jumped from 14,000 to over 10.1 million between March 2020 and early July. The desire to use the service is there, but how Medicare’s policy will have to change to keep up is where the challenge lies. Both patient safety and cost will serve as the two most influential factors in allowing permanent changes in the future.
To feel confident, you are getting the most access to Telemedicine with your Medicare plan, make sure to work with a knowledgeable insurance agent. At Healthcare Solutions Direct, we stay on top of all the latest Medicare developments, so you do not have to. We then translate policy changes and improvements directly to you in a way that is understandable, before advising you on which plan is best for your specific medical needs. We understand that Medicare is complicated, and we are here to make sure you feel completely comfortable with your choice in coverage. Contact one of our expert insurance agents today to learn more.