Becerra: HHS will fight for more telemedicine after public health emergency ends

The Department of Health and Human Services will seek to maintain and expand access to telemedicine once the federal government declares the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, Secretary Xavier Becerra said Friday.

Telehealth proved critical to Medicare recipients during the first year of the pandemic. report The HHS Inspector General’s Office released on Tuesday.

“We would really turn a blind eye to a new form of quality healthcare if we didn’t empower telemedicine to be accessible to Americans,” Becerra said at a news conference.

“This means giving providers and doctors more power over what they can and cannot dispense both virtually and after a visit,” Becerra said. “We are going to work as aggressively as possible to get as much authority as possible so that telemedicine providers have the ability to save lives.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have significantly eased restrictions on telehealth during the pandemic. Beneficiaries can now use telemedicine in their homes as the authorities have removed the requirement that they travel to rural health facilities to speak to providers in remote locations for most services. Medicare also expanded the number of allowed telehealth services by 146 and allowed providers to bill in the same way as for in-person visits.

Many of these flexibilities are tied to the declaration of a public health emergency, which will expire on April 16 unless President Joe Biden renews it. At least another 90-day extension is likely: The federal government has told states they will receive notice at least 60 days before the public health emergency ends. In addition, Congress extended Medicare coverage of telehealth services for 151 days after the end of the emergency.

According to an OIG HHS report, more than two in five Medicare recipients used telehealth between March 1, 2020 and February 28, 2021. Nearly half of Medicare members’ use of telemedicine during these months was for routine appointments with doctors or primary care professionals. These patients used 88 times more telemedicine services during the first year of the pandemic than in the previous full year.

Telehealth use peaked among Medicare members in the early months of the pandemic. In April 2020, the program recorded 17.6 million such visits; seven months later, that number dropped to 7.8 million. Despite the decline, as of February 2021, telemedicine usage remained historically high. in OIG found.

Pending further action from Biden and Congress, health trade organizations and patient advocacy groups argue that HHS can take steps on its own. This may include ensuring that the CMS aligns its alternative payment models with telehealth support. The CMS may also allow technical changes to the telemedicine rules on an ongoing basis. For example, the agency allowed doctors to get paid for virtual observation of medical residents during a public health emergency and this may be extended.

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