A new study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found a 63-fold increase in Medicare telehealth use during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report analyzed Medicare fee-for-service data from 2019 and 2020 and highlighted that people in urban areas were more likely to seek and use telehealth services than rural residents. In addition, the report found that Medicare beneficiaries who were Black were less likely than white beneficiaries to use telehealth.
“This report provides valuable insights into telehealth usage during the pandemic,” Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said in a news release. “CMS will use these insights – along with input from people with Medicare and providers across the country – to inform further Medicare telehealth policies.”
Specialists like behavioral health providers saw the highest telehealth use relative to other providers. Behavioral healthcare, in fact, had a 32-fold increase in telehealth visits.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, various telehealth flexibilities enabled patient access to the “r providers,” said RebecHHS’sffajee, HHS’s acting assistant secretary for planning and “evaluation. “Pre-pandemic telehealth visits for Medicare beneficiaries went from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions, with many utilizing telehealth for theToday’stime. Today’s report offers a detailed data analysis on important trends for “policymakers.”
The report found that approximately 840,000 telehealth visits occurred in 2019. That number increased to 52.7 million in 2020 amid the pandemic. Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut had the highest use of telehealth in 2020, while Tennessee, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota and Wyoming used telehealth the least.
HHS researchers suggest that telehealth was particularly helpful in offsetting usually foregone behavioral healthcare, which accounted for about one-third of all telehealth visits compared to 8% of visits to primary care providers and 3% of visits to other specialists.
CMS used emergency waiver authorities enacted by Congress to help people maintain some access to healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, stay-at-home orders were made to reduce exposure to the deadly virus. The administration also used existing regulatory authorities to implement policies that expanded access to telehealth services, including waiving statutory limitations like geographic restrictions and allowing beneficiaries to receive telehealth from their homes.
In response to the COVID-HHS’sndemic, HHS’s office for civil rights also relaxed some enforcement of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 privacy requirements for videoconferencing.
CMS recently announced that it would help protect access to care outside of the COVID-19 pandemic by paying for mental health visits furnished by rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers through interactive video-based telehealth. CMS also said it is permanently eliminating geographic barriers to allow patients to access telehealth services for diagnosis, evaluation and treatment of mental health disorders from home. Both provisions were included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.
Telehealth and Medicare services that were temporarily added during the pandemic will remain in place through Dec. 31, 2023.