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Doctors give Medicare's proposal to pay for telemedicine poor prognosis

Phil Galewitz, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

The Trump administration wants Medicare for the first time to embrace telemedicine across the country by paying doctors $14 for a five-minute "check-in" phone call with their patients.

But many physicians say the proposed reimbursement will cover a service they already do for free. And the Medicare reimbursement -- intended to motivate doctors to communicate with patients outside the office -- could have a chilling effect on patients because they would be required to pay a 20 percent cost-sharing charge.

Medicare said the call would be used to help patients determine whether they need to come in for an appointment. But doctors and consultants said the virtual sessions could cover a broad array of services, including monitoring patients starting a new medicine or those trying to manage chronic illnesses, such as diabetes. The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, which provides guidance to Congress, panned the proposal last month, saying it could lead to excess spending without benefiting patients.

"Direct-to-consumer telehealth services ... appear to expand access, but at a potentially significant cost and without evidence of improved quality," the commission's chairman, Dr. Francis Crosson, said in a letter to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). "Due to their greater convenience, these services are at risk of misuse by patients or provider."

Congress has shied away from expanding the use of telemedicine in Medicare -- even as it has become commonplace among private insurers -- because of concerns about higher spending. Budget hawks worry that rather than replace comparatively expensive in-person visits, extra telemedicine billings would add to them.

Lack of coverage -- except in rare circumstances -- means less than 1 percent of the 50 million Medicare beneficiaries use telemedicine services each year.

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Federal law forbids Medicare from paying for telemedicine services that replace in-person office visits, except in certain rural areas. That's why CMS called the new benefit a check-in using "virtual" or "communications technology," said Jacob Harper, who specializes in health issues at the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.

In addition to the check-in call, CMS has proposed starting to pay physicians to review photos that patients text or email to them to evaluate skin and eye problems, as well as and other conditions. It also has proposed paying physicians an unspecified fee for consulting electronically or by phone with other doctors.

"Innovative technology that enables remote services can expand access to care and create more opportunities for patients to access personalized care management as well as connect with their physicians quickly," said CMS Administrator Seema Verma when announcing the proposal.

CMS said it hopes to enact the changes in 2019. Officials will announce their final rule after evaluating public comments on the plan.

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