Telemedicine’s Uncertain Future

The ability to connect with health care providers via phone, laptop or tablet has become a lifeline for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.  But will health plans continue to keep telemedicine as an option?

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has proposed maintaining access to telemedicine for now.  The agency first initiated coverage for both virtual and telephone visits this spring, setting the stage for many commercial insurers to follow suit. 

This flexibility allowed telemedicine to quickly become a critical tool for older patients, people with preexisting medical conditions and for vulnerable family members who could be at risk venturing out during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Patients could instead visit with their health care provider via phone call or video conferencing, protecting both patients and providers from unnecessary risk.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that in April, nearly half of Medicare primary care visits occurred through telehealth, compared to less than one percent just two months prior.

Now, a recently proposed rule on payment policies suggests that coverage may continue even after the U.S. Public Health Emergency period expires.  The decision could have significant bearing on health care access.  As the Alliance for Patient Access noted in a letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma, telemedicine has proven “useful, beneficial and [can] further strengthen the physician-patient relationship.”  The organization encouraged the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to make coverage permanent.

But some commercial insurers are changing their approach.  Several national insurers, including United Healthcare and Anthem, announced this month that patients who have had remote access to their providers without cost may now face a co-pay for virtual visits. The policy change could deter or confuse patients relying on virtual care during the pandemic. A physician interviewed by STAT News argued that “…it’s irresponsible to decrease payment for the kind of care that so many patients are receiving. For many patients… it’s the only way that they’re feeling comfortable or safe receiving care.” 

The COVID-19 outbreak reinforces the fact that patients need timely access to care, no matter the circumstance. Now it’s up to policymakers to protect telemedicine policies that keep patients, providers and communities healthy.


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