The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG) has released an agency "data brief" lauding the benefits of telehealth for Medicare beneficiaries. The OIG looked at Medicare fee-for-service claims data and Medicare Advantage encounter data for two years (from the beginning of March 2019 to the end of February 2021) to determine the total number of services used via telehealth versus in-person. What they found was that these pandemic year results were dramatic.
More than 40% of Medicare beneficiaries - over 28 million patients - used telehealth to receive health care services during the first year of the pandemic. Medicare beneficiaries used 88 times more telehealth services during the first year of the pandemic than they used in the prior year. Significantly, Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth to receive 12 percent of their overall health care services during the first year of the pandemic.
Because the OIG appears to believe there are long-term benefits to using telehealth to improve access to health care, they state bluntly their hope that CMS, Congress, and other policy makers take this data into account as those stakeholders consider possible changes to telehealth policy in Medicare. It will be interesting to see if CMS uses findings such as the OIG data to inform changes to the services that are allowed to be provided via telehealth on a permanent basis.
It was good to see an indication that regulatory flexibility for telehealth services may continue. In response to this report, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said last week: "We're going to work as aggressively as we can to get as much authority as possible so that the providers of that telehealth have an opportunity to save lives."