The coronavirus pandemic has opened the door for Medicare patients to have access to telehealth, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said Tuesday. But what is that, exactly?
Telehealth connects patients to healthcare providers through videoconferencing, electronic consultations and virtual communications, in lieu of in-person consultations, according to the American Hospital Association. In 2019, 76% of US hospitals used the technology.
During the coronavirus outbreak, patients seeking medical assistance through telehealth will reduce the strain on doctors' time and resources as the number of cases continue to climb, said CMS Administrator Seema Verma. Additionally, when patients communicate with their doctors on their phones and computers for screenings and regular checkups for chronic conditions, they can avoid potentially spreading illness by coming into an office or hospital.
While telehealth was in practice before the pandemic, increasing need has increased accessibility.
Medicare patients were limited in their coverage when they used telehealth and would previously only receive coverage for routine services in certain circumstances, such as if they lived in a remote location, CMS said in a release Tuesday.
But the Trump administration announced Tuesday that Medicare would temporarily pay clinicians to provide telehealth services to its patients including mental health counseling, common office visits, and preventative health screenings, according to the release.
"In an emergency, those on the frontlines should not have to worry about federal rules and red tape, restraining them when they need flexibility, above all else," Verma said.
The Department of Health and Human Services also changed guidelines for HIPAA, a law that governs how medical professionals ensure that patient information is kept confidential. Patients using telehealth are normally required to fill out waivers before accessing telehealth, but the Trump administration announced that penalties for forgoing those waivers will not be enforced.
"Thanks to the Public Health Emergency I declared in January, more older Americans will be able to access healthcare they need from their home, without worrying about putting themselves or others at risk during the COVID-19 outbreak," HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.