AHA urges HHS to make telehealth rollbacks permanent

Dive Brief:

  • The American Hospital Association wants HHS to ensure the telehealth flexibilities it has allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic will continue permanently, according to a Tuesday letter it sent to the agency.
  • Specifically, AHA wants hospitals to permanently be allowed to bill and get reimbursed for certain Medicare services provided virtually. It wants CMS to expand the list of Medicare telehealth services to include those added during the pandemic and to maintain the subregulatory process for adding additional services to the list. AHA also wants the agency to allow virtual check-ins, e-visits and remote patient monitoring for both new and established patients beyond the duration of the pandemic.
  • Audio-only telehealth services, which AHA calls an essential service for many rural patients lacking broadband internet access, should also be covered permanently by CMS, according to the letter.

Dive Insight:

The use of telehealth services has skyrocketed since the Trump administration broke down regulatory barriers to access early into the pandemic.

In the week ended March 7, only 11,000 elderly and disabled Americans in Medicare used telehealth. By the week ended April 25, that had snowballed to 1.7 million Medicare beneficiaries.

But providers who invested heavily in those services and the companies that furnish them are dependent on those regulations to make or break future use.

AHA said it was pleased with President Donald Trump’s Aug. 3 executive order to improve telehealth access in rural communities through a new payment model for rural hospitals and accountable care organizations that will use upfront and capitated payments.

And while CMS’ 2021 physician fee schedule draft also released earlier this month offers additional telehealth flexibilities, it’s still not enough to ensure continued virtual care access, according to the hospital lobby.

CMS’ proposal notably excluded payment for audio-only telehealth visits, which AHA strongly recommends it provide.

AHA also recommends allowing annual beneficiary consent to virtual treatment to be obtained at the same time, not necessarily before, services are provided. Hospitals should retain the ability to capture diagnoses impacting risk adjustment scores through telehealth visits too, according to AHA.

The 2021 PFS proposal does include the permanent addition of nine new telehealth codes, and 13 will be covered through the calendar year in which the public health emergency ends, to give physicians a chance to deliver services virtually before CMS decides whether to permanently allow them.

Other proposed changes from CMS include allowing Medicare providers to conduct evaluation and management home visits for established patients virtually, allow an emergency room E/M virtual visit for minor to moderately severe health issues and expand some telehealth services similar to those already covered by Medicare, like for group psychotherapy or care for patients with cognitive impairment.

The administration has viewed telehealth favorably, launching a pledge to “Embrace Technology to Advance America’s Health” on Wednesday in an effort to “reassure patients, providers, and payers that telehealth is here to stay and will be covered over the long term.”

The pledge calls on commercial insurers to commit to expanding flexible and affordable telehealth options, and on providers to accelerate the adoption of telehealth services, though it’s still unclear exactly how far CMS will go to help facilitate those expansions long-term.