Christmas has come early for some Medicare beneficiaries. On December 1, the Trump administration officially made permanent certain Medicare telehealth services that were expanded during the pandemic.
Even before the virus hit, the administration invested in programs that would increase access to telehealth in rural areas. This was good news for the one quarter of Medicare recipients who may live far from a hospital or doctor’s office. For these seniors, even routine visits could be a burden, especially if they’re not able to drive a far distance. But greater telehealth access meant that proximity to a doctor was no longer a barrier to necessary care.
Once the coronavirus hit, telemedicine became even more of an imperative. In the words of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) Administrator Seema Verma, “The pandemic accentuated just how transformative [telemedicine] could be.” Medicare beneficiaries are 65 years or older, and two-thirds of them report having a chronic condition. Essentially, each in-person doctor visit presented a major risk for contracting the virus. But access to telemedicine prevented patients from being forced to choose between the safety of their home and the necessity of their medical checkups. And millions of people took advantage.
Before the virus, only 15,000 fee-for-service beneficiaries each week received a Medicare telemedicine service. Now, the latest data shows that between March and October 2020, almost 25 million beneficiaries out of 63 million accessed it. In fact, a recent survey from healthinsurance.com found that over 70% of seniors increased their telemedicine usage during the coronavirus. It’s not hard to see why. CMS added over 140 telehealth services, including “emergency department visits, initial inpatient and nursing facility visits, and discharge day management services.”
Now, 60 services will remain covered for those in rural areas, even after the coronavirus crisis is over. The timing couldn’t be better. After all, the number of people on Medicare is only increasing. Over 10,000 beneficiaries join the program every day. And while progress on developing a coronavirus vaccine is certainly laudable, the need for telemedicine isn’t going away any time soon. Even after the risk of contracting the virus is mitigated for seniors, the convenience of telemedicine may have them unwilling to go back to their usual in-person visits. In fact, more than 40% of seniors have said they’ll continue accessing telemedicine even after the pandemic is over.
This makes sense for an increasingly tech savvy generation of Medicare recipients. When asked in a recent survey how often they accessed Facebook each week, 52% of seniors said every day. 35% said they’d video chatted within the last month, and almost 40% said they were binge watching a show. Seniors have adapted to new technologies when it comes to how they socialize or keep in touch with family. With telemedicine, they can add medical checkups to the growing list of tasks they can accomplish on a phone, computer, or tablet — and many are. Of those who said they’d use telemedicine during the pandemic, over 35% said they did so using their smartphone.
Expanded telemedicine benefits are just the beginning. CMS has also commissioned a study that will investigate not just how telehealth can be utilized, but how other “virtual care supervision” services could change the way doctors administer care. It could lead to greater opportunities for patients to be monitored or treated from the comfort of their own home, instead of a hospital.
If there’s one silver-lining to this pandemic, it’s how readily both doctors and patients have embraced technology when it comes to healthcare. These latest updates from CMS will ensure we don’t backtrack on the progress that’s been made to streamline care, especially for those who are most at risk.
Jan Dubauskas is a healthcare expert, enthusiastic insurance pro, attorney and mom serving as Vice President of healthinsurance.com.
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