To Keep Seniors Safe At Home, Medicare Expands Telemedicine
Medicare said Tuesday it will immediately expand coverage for telemedicine nationwide to help seniors with health problems stay home to avoid the coronavirus.
The new option will allow millions of older people to take care of ongoing medical problems as well as new concerns, while heeding public health advice to stay home during the outbreak.
For example, a patient with diabetes wouldn’t have to postpone a regular follow-up visit with the doctor to keep safe — he or she could do it via Skype. And people concerned they may have the virus could “see” their doctor or nurse practitioner virtually to find out how to get tested in person.
“It helps us prevent the spread of the virus,” said Medicare administrator Seema Verma.
For seniors who don’t navigate technology, relatives or friends can assist. “If it’s your mom, you may need to go over to her house to help her do this,” said Verma. Bring your smartphone — but remember, don’t visit if you’re feeling sick.
Risk of serious illness from the coronavirus is greater for older people and those with underlying health problems such as lung conditions, diabetes or heart problems. Many Medicare beneficiaries are managing chronic health issues that put them at heightened risk. The telemedicine expansion is geared directly to this vulnerable group.
Current telehealth coverage under traditional Medicare is limited. It’s available in rural areas, and patients need to go to specially-designated sites for their visits. Since last year Medicare has also been paying for brief “virtual check-ins.” Tuesday’s announcement goes beyond that, allowing clinicians and hospitals to bill Medicare for visits via telemedicine that previously had to take place in person, at a medical office or facility.
The policy change carries out a waiver of Medicare rules recently authorized by Congress, and set in motion under emergency declarations from the Trump administration. Expanded telemedicine coverage will remain in effect during the outbreak.
At Tuesday’s White House briefing, Verma said the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is also encouraging states to expand the use of telehealth in their Medicaid programs for low-income people. Separately, Medicare Advantage plans offered by private insurers have been allowed to offer telemedicine as a supplemental benefit, like dental coverage or a gym membership, for several years now. The private plans serve about one-third of Medicare’s more than 60 million beneficiaries.