he last 9 months have held much uncertainty. Uncertainty on when travel will happen normally again, without COVID-19 anxiety in the back on our minds; uncertainty if youth are going back to school, and for how long; uncertainty on if your partner can be in the delivery room with you while you have your first, or forth, child; uncertainty around if you or your family members will lose jobs, homes, or even lives. Uncertainty on if one does get sick, will there be healthcare?
Through this, one spot that became more certain was the value of telehealth, but with that came mountains of questions.
What is telehealth?
How do you bill for telehealth?
Where can patients and providers be located?
Which providers can utilize telehealth?
The list goes on.
As the telehealth resource center in the region, the Upper Midwest Telehealth Resource Center (UMTRC) has received over 400 requests and questions since the shut down in March, with a flood of questions coming in initially, as seen in the graph below.
Due to the tireless efforts of telehealth resource centers, provider groups seeking answers, folks advocating for telehealth policy, and CMS and state Medicaid agencies editing regulations around telehealth, we entered a new space in healthcare. But as telehealth emerged as a healthcare practice norm, even more uncertainty arose: what happens to these telehealth regulations after the state of emergency?
On December 1, CMS released the annual Physician Fee Schedule final rule, and the explosion in telehealth utilization has caused many of those changes in telehealth policy and practice to become permanent. According to MLN Connects, before the COVID-19 state of emergency around 15,000 Fee-for-Service beneficiaries each week received a Medicare telemedicine service. Since the beginning of the state of emergency, CMS has added 144 telehealth services covered by Medicare through the end of the emergency, allowing for safe access to critical healthcare services. Due to these additions, data shows that between mid-March and mid-October 2020, over 24.5 million out of 63 million Medicare beneficiaries and enrollees have received a telemedicine service during the public health emergency.
With the release of the final rule, a few things became more certain: after the state of emergency, over 60 telehealth services will continue to be covered via telehealth, allowing for further discussion on what additional services should also become permanent in the future. While one wouldn’t argue that telehealth is superior to a face to face visit, it has proven critical to have the option for those who need it. Telehealth has helped people remain safe.
In the end, what we do know: the pandemic changed us. The pandemic changed healthcare. Of that, we are certain.