Providers view telehealth move from Medicare as 'sea change' for the field

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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' move to start paying for virtual visits, beyond rural areas of the country, is being lauded by advocates in the field.

Medicare officials proposed Friday to begin allowing reimbursement for video chats or check-ins. They also say CMS will cover doctors who evaluate patient-submitted photos or monitoring chronic conditions via smartphone.

"This is a big issue for the elderly and disabled population for which transportation can be a barrier to care," CMS Administrator Seema Verma said. "We're not intending to replace office visits but rather to augment them and create new access points for patients."

These payment policy changes will be particularly beneficial to elderly patients, who may have limited ability to make it to appointments and brick-and-mortar locations. Jim Yocum, a senior vice president at the health IT firm Connecture, called the proposed policy switch a “sea change” for the field, according to Bloomberg Law. When telehealth was first added to Medicare in 2000, it was conceived strictly as a way to help beneficiaries in remote areas.

Its use has been restricted only to certain sites, such as clinics, hospitals or physician offices. Telehealth's use in Medicare has been limited, with real-time visits via video covered only if they originate in those settings in a rural area.

Krista Drobac, the executive director of the Alliance for Connected Care, lauded the move from CMS this week, but she said she hopes that Congress will give the HHS secretary authority to waive telehealth restrictions for all provider codes.

“What they have done is creative and brilliant, and it goes further than CMS has ever gone previously to ensure that seniors have services everyone else in the marketplace has,” Drobac told healthcare-informatics.com. “On the one hand, I am excited about the progress; on the other hand, it makes me even more determined that Congress act. CMS has gone as far as any of us could have asked on a regulatory level,” she continued.