The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has temporarily expanded telehealth services to include all Medicare beneficiaries, and senior living residents may stand to benefit as a result.
CMS announced on Tuesday that Medicare will now pay clinicians to provide telehealth services on a temporary basis for beneficiaries who live across the country, and not only in certain areas and under certain conditions, as previously mandated. For instance, a beneficiary could use the new telehealth provision to remotely visit with their doctor before receiving a prescription refill.
“Any expansion of telehealth services is a very good thing,” Kari Olson, chief innovation and technology officer for Glendale, California-based senior living provider Front Porch, told Senior Housing News. “Especially during this time when we need folks to stay home, and in particular, to safeguard people over 65 as well as other high-risk individuals.”
The new waiver comes less than a week after U.S. President Donald Trump and Congress took several moves aimed at granting CMS some regulatory flexibilities to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under the telehealth expansion, Medicare beneficiaries living in their homes and in health care settings located outside of rural areas are now temporarily eligible for telehealth services, including virtual medical office visits, mental health counseling and preventive health screenings. Previously, CMS only paid clinicians for telehealth services in certain circumstances, including in cases where the beneficiary lived in a rural area. And beneficiaries also weren’t generally allowed to get telehealth services in their home.
Clinicians can now bill for dates of service retroactively, starting March 6. Additionally, the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) is providing new flexibility for healthcare providers to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits paid by federal health care programs.
CMS is also temporarily waiving HIPAA penalties for providers which serve patients through communication technologies such as FaceTime or Skype.
The new telehealth expansion comes at a crucial time for the senior living industry. Senior living residents are at high risk of infection from Covid-19, the pandemic that has sickened thousands and torn through financial markets across the globe. The challenge for senior living providers now is caring for residents while enforcing social distancing and other clinical strategies to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmissions.
The telehealth expansion could make that easier, as more residents can shelter in place while still keeping up with medical visits, according to Olson.
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The expansion means senior living providers must work to make residents in all of their settings aware of the new opportunities, she said. That could include assisting residents in virtually connecting with their health care teams by setting up equipment or establishing connections.
“Once the connection is in place, independent residents and care providers can typically run with it,” Olson explained. “And when you use telehealth in other settings such as assisted living, memory care or skilled nursing, you must have staff trained in telehealth supporting the sessions.”
The temporary telehealth expansion will end with the cancelation of the ongoing public health emergency that was declared by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Jan. 31. But there are efforts to codify parts of the expansion into law. These include the Reducing Unnecessary Senior Hospitalizations (RUSH) Act, a bill in Congress that would further move telemedicine higher on the health care totem pole to include more Medicare recipients.
Many within the industry have touted the promise of telehealth in senior living settings, and this expansion could serve to demonstrate its value in the real world. Medicare Advantage (MA) policy changes enacted last year already make it easier for senior living residents to receive care such in the independent living or assisted living community where they live rather than in a health care facility.