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Will telehealth access continue unabated after the pandemic?

Health industry stakeholders and patient advocacy groups are urging Congress and the Biden Administration to preserve rules and reimbursement policies that have fostered and supported telehealth patient-physician visits during the COVID-19 pandemic. These virtual visits have been popular with providers and patients, but many of the policy waivers that have permitted them are slated to end after the public health emergency expires.

According to a report from Kaiser Health News published by USA Today, this broad effort to expand telehealth access reaches across the nation’s diverse health care system, "bringing together consumer groups with health insurers, state Medicaid officials, physician organizations and telehealth vendors.” In addition, “it represents an emerging consensus that many services that once required an office visit can be provided easily and safely – and often more effectively – through a video chat, a phone call or even an email.”

During the public health emergency, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) lifted various geographic restrictions that beneficiaries must be located in a rural area, and also permitted beneficiaries to receive telehealth services from their homes. CMS also allowed a broader range of providers to deliver telehealth services, such as physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists.

The Medicare agency also added coverage and payment for audio-only forms of telehealth, enabled rural health centers to serve as eligible distant sites, and dramatically expanded Medicare telehealth coverage to a long list of additional services.

Even in the midst of widespread support for ongoing policies to foster continuation of the virtual delivery of health care, concerns have been expressed for the need to implement safeguards to prevent fraud, preserve quality, and ensure equity in the delivery of care to low-income patients and communities of color with less access to technology.

Although these policies permitting widespread use of telehealth technologies are set to expire after the end of the public health emergency, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission has recommended an extension of telehealth programs for a limited time so that more evidence could be gathered about its impact on access, utilization, quality and spending.

With the various telehealth waivers set to expire at the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, intense pressure can be expected from stakeholders urging Congress and CMS to find ways – and funding – to continue eligibility for the virtual delivery of heath care to Americans.

Companies offering remote urgent care, virtual primary care and new wearable technologies to monitor patient health are exploding, with the annual global telehealth market expected to top $300 billion by 2026, up nearly fivefold from 2019, according to research company PitchBook.

Tags

health care & life sciences, telehealth, covid-19, cms, medicare, tech & data, digital health

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