CMS Unveils Temporary Change Allowing Wider Use of Telehealth During COVID-19 Pandemic

March 18, 2020

The temporary relaxation and expansion of CMS' telehealth rules, which allows the use of methods like FaceTime and Skype, is aimed at protecting both older patients and their providers from COVID-19, which has led to curfews, shuttered schools, deserted Main Streets, and ravaged financial markets.

CMS Tuesday substantially expanded the powers of telehealth for the nation’s elderly, the population most vulnerable to severe complications of the novel coronavirus, by making it as easy for them to call their doctor as it is for them to FaceTime their grandchildren.

The temporary relaxation and expansion of the telehealth rules, which allows the use of methods like FaceTime and Skype, is aimed at protecting both older patients and their providers from COVID-19, which has led to curfews, shuttered schools, deserted Main Streets, and ravaged financial markets.

The policy, which CMS said will last for the duration of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency declared last Friday, is retroactive to March 6, 2020. Under the policy, which is also provided under section 1135 waiver requirements, Medicare will pay for telehealth visits at the same rate as regular, in-person visits.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma said the emergency and temporary authorization gives providers and patients the ability to connect in all areas of the country—not just in rural areas, which previously was the only area where full telehealth services were permitted. Telehealth will also be available in a broader range of facilities, such as for nursing home residents.

In addition, the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) is providing flexibility for healthcare providers to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits paid by federal healthcare programs. The Medicare coinsurance and deductible would generally apply to these services. In addition, HHS will not conduct audits to ensure that a prior relationship existed between patients and providers for claims submitted during the public health emergency.

On a call with the media explaining the changes, Verma was asked if the need to conserve personal protective equipment (PPE) was a factor in the department’s decision to relax the telehealth rules. She said saving PPE was a consideration, but not the only one; the change is aimed mostly at protecting older adults with comorbid conditions from the severe, life-threatening complications of the virus.

In addition, the new policy will pay for “virtual check-ins” where patients can have brief communications with providers over telephone or video. These virtual check-ins are for patients with an existing relationship with a physician. The communication can’t be related to a medical visit within the previous 7 days and does not lead to a medical visit within the next 24 hours (or soonest appointment available).