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Virtual doctor visits should pay the same rate as in-office checkups even after the Covid-19 pandemic ends, telehealth advocates told a Senate health panel.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hosted a panel Wednesday to consider what recent telehealth changes to keep once the public health emergency ends. Various lawmakers including Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asked about potential hurdles that could slow the telehealth momentum. 

Top of the list was telehealth reimbursement rates.

Major health-care commercial insurers like Aetna, Cigna, and United Healthcare typically cover telehealth, but often don’t pay doctors at the same rate as for in-office visits. As a result, doctors may revert back to in-person services after the coronavirus, because it pays more.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has previously said it’s considering what recent telehealth changes to keep once the public health emergency ends.

Witnesses, including Joseph Kvedar, professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and president of the American Telemedicine Association, want Medicare and Medicare to keep those payment rates equal.

“It would be very difficult to conduct this care model in a world where we got some payment for some things and didn’t get paid for others,” Kvedar said.

Alexander agreed, adding physicians should be reimbursed for telehealth regardless of the patient’s location. Prior to the coronavirus, doctors and hospitals had a hard time getting reimbursed when providing virtual treatment for patients outside of rural areas.

Since March, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has paid telehealth costs for office, hospital, and other visits.

The Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General also permitted health-care providers to waive or reduce cost-sharing for virtual visits, including deductibles, coinsurance, and copayments. Blue Cross Blue Shield, for example, waived out of pocket fees for patients.

But those changes will end once the pandemic is over.

Blue Cross Blue Shield is still considering whether it will pay the same rate for online doctor appointments as in-person visits going forward.

“We’re not in a rush to abandon that, but we’re going to look to the data to make sure that we see the efficiencies we think that we’re going to see,” Andrea D. Willis, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, said at the hearing. 

“What we don’t want to do is to inject additional healthcare costs in the system,” Willis said.

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