The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid will temporarily expand telehealth options, including for new patients and audio-only appointments.

In a direct response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid on Monday revealed more temporary expansions of telehealth services for Medicare recipients.

“Today, we’re announcing that we’re going to go even further and we’re going to be paying doctors to make phone calls with their patients and provide care over the phone,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma announced at a COVID-19 Task Force press briefing Monday afternoon. “And we’re getting rid of long-standing barriers to telehealth in the Medicare program, allowing emergency rooms to use telehealth and eliminating requirements that some visits be provided face-to-face.”

In a larger announcement around new regulatory changes to combat the pandemic, also published Monday, CMS officials said the agency will “now allow for more than 80 additional services to be furnished via telehealth.” The agency also noted that under the expansion “new as well as established patients now may stay at home and have a telehealth visit with their provider,” and providers will have the ability to bill for telehealth visits at the same rate as in-person visits. 

On top of several other additions, CMS also said physicians can supervise their clinical staff “using virtual technologies when appropriate, instead of requiring in-person presence.”

The news comes several days after the agency initially announced plans to broaden reimbursements for telehealth services and extend telehealth benefits for Medicare recipients. Further information on the agency’s waivers and rule changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic can be found online.

Medicare recipients must use video-conferencing for remote visits with care providers.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services presently reimburse health care providers for telehealth services offered to Medicare recipients through video-conferencing on laptops or tablets—but the current federal rules exclude coverage for telephone, or audio-only conversations.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., aims to change that.

The lawmaker penned a letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma Monday, pushing the agency to expand Medicare coverage to telehealth services that only incorporate sound through the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“During this public health crisis, CMS must do everything it can to help … our nation’s most vulnerable populations,” Markey wrote. “I urge CMS to allow providers to bill Medicare for telehealth services provided by audio-only communications equipment.”

In the letter, the senator quotes current federal regulations that direct CMS to reimburse medical providers solely for telehealth services offered through “communications equipment that includes, at a minimum, audio and video equipment permitting two-way, real-time interactive communication.” Markey said this means that “many of the more than 44 million Americans who rely on Medicare” cannot access those telehealth services inside their own homes. 

The senator wrote that Medicare recipients—who are at least 65 years old—may not have access to adequate internet connections or have video-enabled devices. 

Markey also notes in the letter that CMS made a step in the right direction March 17, when it issued guidance temporarily waiving certain Medicare requirements for telehealth service, which in part enabled patients to use “a wider range of communication tools including telephones that have audio and video capabilities.” 

But the lawmaker said it can go further. 

“CMS created the prohibition on audio-only telehealth by regulation, and CMS has the authority

to lift it,” he wrote. “I urge CMS to do so immediately, and reimburse providers for audio-only telehealth services during the remainder of this public health crisis.” 

Congress is considering legislation that would clarify CMS’s authority to waive these requirements during a public health emergency, Markey said, but the agency could take more immediate action now. 

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