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March 17, 2020 – The Trump Administration recently announced the expansion of telehealth services in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus. Providers will now be reimbursed for virtual care at the same rate they are for in-person visits.

Using telehealth services, patients and providers will be able to communicate virtually. This will help patients avoid unnecessary office or hospital visits, hopefully lowering their risk for contracting COVID-19.

Elderly patients, in particular, are at an increased likelihood of contracting the virus, so minimizing their need for on-site visits will hopefully help reduce their risk and keep them safe.  

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Through an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act, Medicare coverage will now include three types of virtual services: Medicare telehealth visits, virtual check-ins, and e-visits.

Medicare telehealth visits use audio or video telehealth tools for office, hospital, or preventive services patients would normally seek in-person. Providers can use real-time communication to video conference a patient and discuss symptoms. After discussing virtually, providers can make an informed recommendation to patients on if they should come into the office or not. This will help avoid overwhelming clinics and hospitals with patients who can be treated remotely and help minimize the spread of disease, keeping healthy patients safe in their homes.

Virtual check-ins allow Medicare beneficiaries to communicate from their home with a provider. Through patient-initiated virtual communication, providers can receive images from patients and discuss symptoms and treatment recommendations.

The final expanded services are e-visits or non-face-to-face communications initiated by the patient. Typically conducted through the patient portal, these services allow patients to communicate with their provider at their leisure. Providers can administer virtual follow-up care or advise a patient to seek treatment in-person. 

All three services are intended to keep at-risk patients in their homes and out of the physician’s office. Not only does this ensure sick patients are receiving the care they need but these methods are helping ensure these patients are not putting others at risk. 

Previously, these services were not covered by Medicare. Telehealth was only covered as a part of routine care, not urgent needs.

The expansion of services is a part of the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, intending to make services more accessible during a time of crisis.

“The Trump Administration is taking swift and bold action to give patients greater access to care through telehealth during the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Seema Verma, administrator of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in an earlier release. “These changes allow seniors to communicate with their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility so that they can limit the risk of exposure and the spread of this virus. Clinicians on the frontlines will now have greater flexibility to safely treat our beneficiaries.”

Services since March 6, 2020, are covered under the expansion including traditional office visits, mental health counseling, and preventive health screenings.

As coronavirus continues to spread across the country, patients should be intentional about when they are seeking care. Those who are exhibiting symptoms should be screened but should consult their provider first. Expanding telehealth coverage will allow patients to minimize their risk of contracting the virus or furthering its spread while also receiving the care or peace of mind they need.

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