Federal healthcare oversight authorities have spent much of the last six months promoting the use of telehealth services.  

It’s not the first time during the current COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) that federal healthcare authorities have promoted the use of telehealth services – and it probably won’t be the last.

Adhering to a trend that has extended back months, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) this week expanded the list of telehealth services that Medicare Fee-For-Service (FFS) will cover during the PHE, while also announcing a surge of additional support to state Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) agencies in their efforts to expand access to telehealth.

“CMS is taking action to increase telehealth adoption across the country,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement. “Medicaid patients should not be forgotten, and today’s announcement promotes telehealth for them as well. This revolutionary method of improving access to care is transforming healthcare delivery in America.”

Using what it described as a “new expedited process,” CMS in its announcement specified that it is adding 11 new services to the Medicare coverage list, following the May 1 publication of its initial COVID-19 Interim Final Rule. Medicare will begin paying eligible practitioners who furnish the newly added telehealth services effective immediately; they include certain neurostimulator analysis and programming services, along with cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation services (to view the list in its entirety, go online to https://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Medicare-General-Information/Telehealth/Telehealth-Codes).

This marks a tiny fraction of the overall list; CMS noted in its announcement that it has added more than 135 services to the total since the advent of the PHE, including emergency department visits, initial inpatient and nursing facility visits, and discharge day management services. Between mid-March and mid-August 2020, the agency noted, more than 12.1 million Medicare beneficiaries – over 36 percent of the total – with Medicare Fee-For-Service received some sort of telemedicine service.

Even that figure is dwarfed by the 34.5 million telehealth services delivered to Medicaid and CHIP beneficiaries in an even shorter time frame – from March to June. That’s an increase of more than 2,600 percent over the same period last year, CMS said.

“To further drive telehealth, CMS is releasing a new supplement to its State Medicaid & CHIP Telehealth Toolkit: Policy Considerations for States Expanding Use of Telehealth, COVID-19 Version that provides numerous new examples and insights into lessons learned from states that have implemented telehealth changes,” the agency said in a press release. “The updated supplemental information is intended to help states strategically think through how they explain and clarify to providers and other stakeholders which policies are temporary or permanent. It also helps states identify services that can be accessed through telehealth, which providers may deliver those services, the ways providers may use in order to deliver services through telehealth, as well as the circumstances under which telehealth can be reimbursed once the PHE expires.”

To view a newly created Medicaid and CHIP data snapshot on telehealth utilization during the PHE, go online to https://www.medicaid.gov/resources-for-states/downloads/medicaid-chip-beneficiaries-COVID-19-snapshot-data-through-20200630.pdf.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has sickened an estimated 39.3 million people worldwide, killing an estimated 1.1 million. The United States accounts for approximately one-fifth of those totals.

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