Report: COVID-19 Will Push Long-Term Telehealth Use in Medicare

Research effort shows telehealth use has skyrocketed more than 12,000% from before the public health emergency to the end of April, and Medicare Advantage is seeing a lot of that growth.

Thanks to policy relaxations from CMS, the increased use of telehealth during the COVID-19 public health emergency has been welcomed by providers and patients alike and will likely continue after the pandemic has passed, according to near research.

Telehealth During a Time of Crisis: Medicare Experiences Amid COVID-19 combines analysis of Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey (MCBS) data and nearly 20 interviews with high-level executives at Medicare Advantage plans, providers, telehealth vendors, and policy experts to identify and explore the factors accelerating the use of telehealth during COVID-19, as well as barriers hindering its expansion.

So far, CMS’s various waivers and flexibilities have helped telehealth grow more than 12,000 percent from before the public health emergency to the end of April, according to the research, which was conducted by research firm ATI Advisory and commissioned by Better Medicare Alliance’s research arm, The Center for Innovation in Medicare Advantage (CIMA).

Another growth factor was that Medicare Advantage’s risk-based structure allowed for faster adoption of telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report’s interviews uncovered that one Medicare Advantage plan with existing telehealth infrastructure saw a four-fold increase in use.

Another large Medicare Advantage plan reported loaning 50,000 tablets to members to facilitate telehealth access to a clinical home monitoring program to provide devices and services.

“Providers pointed to risk-bearing relationships with Medicare Advantage plans as a main driver in their ability to scale virtual care for Medicare patients,” the reported noted. “… Providers also reported that Medicare Advantage capitated payments allowed them to implement and expand solutions without having to wait for fee-for-service policy waivers to ‘catch-up’ to Medicare Advantage.”

“Telehealth is here to stay — carrying with it the potential to improve health equity and bring the quality, affordable care found in Medicare Advantage to new, underserved, and rural populations,” said Allyson Schwartz, president and CEO of the Better Medicare Alliance. “As this report shows, Medicare Advantage continues to lead the way in telehealth adoption — aided by a risk-based, value-driven framework that made for a faster transition to virtual care when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

That said, Schwartz also noted that the report highlighted factors hindering telehealth’s full potential, such as traditional FFS prohibitions; differences in telehealth policies and procedures between Medicare and Medicaid; limitation on some beneficiary groups’ access to devices and data; and process rigidity.

“The report goes further and offers specific solutions for reform,” she said. “It shows that we can meet beneficiaries where they are by expanding the use of both video and audio-only telehealth – recognizing that audio-only telehealth is preferred by upwards of 60 percent of beneficiaries, according to multiple interviewees for this report.”

More details can be found in the full report.

About the Author

David Kopf is the Publisher and Executive Editor of HME Business and DME Pharmacy magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @postacutenews.

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