Administration expands telemedicine for Medicare and encourages health plans to boost offerings

Jonathan Shieber

The U.S. government is moving to lift restrictions on telemedicine services and expand coverage to all Americans, even as many providers say they're struggling to meet existing demand.

The expansion covers roughly 62 million Medicare beneficiaries who are among the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

"This action is a part of our broader effort to ensure that government requirements, [and] rules and regulations don't get in the way of patient care during an emergency," said Seema Verma in a press conference at the White House on Tuesday.

With the announcement, telemedicine services are now being expanded beyond just the rural areas and brief visits that were previously covered, Verma said. "These services can be provided in a variety of settings including nursing homes, hospital outpatient departments, and more."

The new agreements also relax restrictions around HIPAA compliance so that doctors can use their own phones. Furthermore, the government said it would be using discretion when it comes to collecting co-pays to further reduce the costs of telemedicine services, according to Verma.

These relaxed rules will ultimately help patients who need care that's unrelated to an infection with the novel coronavirus. COVID-19 patients are currently being treated at several hospitals around the country and the new guidelines ensure that other patients won't run the risk of infection.

"With our new telehealth benefits, this person who's not really... who's at risk for the coronavirus, doesn't have to venture outside their home, they can talk to their doctor via Skype and they don't have to risk exposure to the virus and they can experience that from the comfort of their own home," said Verma.

Even without the government's urging, telemedicine services have seen demand spike, according to a report on CNBC.

American Well, Doctor on Demand and 98point6 are all struggling to keep up with new patients as networks suffer and the push to staff-up increases.

That demand will only increase as the government encourages private insurance companies "to expand their telehealth benefits and make it clear to providers and their members what they cover," as Verma said in her statement to reporters.

Already, some health plans are responding. In New York, two health plans, CDPHP and MVP HealthCare, are offering members no-cost access to telemedicine services.

“As the public contends with coronavirus COVID-19, it’s essential that communities and businesses like ours collaborate to tackle this issue in innovative ways,” said MVP Health Care’s president and CEO, Christopher Del Vecchio, in a statement. “Together with CDPHP, we’re leveraging technology during a challenging time to support the health and safety of the communities we serve. This program is a game-changer for anyone in need of virtual ER triage.”

New startups in the market are doing their part to ensure care as well. Holmdel, N.J.-based Beam Health is offering its telemedicine service to independent physicians in the U.S. for free, the company said yesterday.

Beam doesn't actually provide the services itself. Instead, it aggregates telemedicine companies and gives consumers their choice of providers. The company is making the service available for free for 90 days to independent doctors' offices in the U.S.

"Virtual is where it’s at, especially during the rise of this contagious disease,” said Dr. Susan Fedewa, owner of 98point6 Emergicenter in Lansing, Mich., in a statement. “We’re using Beam to continue to provide care to people and hopefully keep the well away from the sick. Especially at times like this, people tend to panic and seek care.”