But how things have quickly changed. Telemedicine has found new prominence, and some would say that it is long overdue. With the COVID-19 pandemic being so widespread, healthcare providers throughout the US are using virtual services more than ever. Forrester Research projects that we are on pace to hit over 1 billion virtual encounters by years end.
Health insurers and hospitals have made a strong push for patients who have milder symptoms to use their telehealth platforms during the crisis to help alleviate the strain on emergency rooms and doctors’ offices, substantially minimizing the risk of exposure to other patients and providers.
Telemedicine has seen slow growth in recent years, with the rise of apps like ELVI by CompuGroup Medical (CGM), that allow providers to interact with patients anytime, anywhere. However, issues with reimbursement, along with technology and credentialing hurdles have so far prevented virtual care from fully entering the mainstream. All of that has changed with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announcing expanded telehealth access. The emergency declaration under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act waives Medicare’s geographical restrictions on coverage. Providers can use CGM ELVI in urban and rural areas, as well as in the patient’s home, during a public emergency.
While these restrictions have only been temporarily lifted on an emergency basis, many believe that COVID-19 has broken the barriers to widespread adoption once and for all.
CMS also reduced a major cost barrier for telemedicine adoption by smaller practices as it declared Medicare and Medicaid would pay the same rates for virtual visits as for in-office appointments. The administration also temporarily eased regulations to allow the use of their mobile devices for patient visits.
For smaller practices, reimbursement rate rules will be a big factor in determining whether they continue with the trend long term. We can expect pressure on the CMS, our legislators, and insurance companies to maintain higher rates for telehealth once the emergency has passed.
We may be seeing the start of a trend in that direction with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee recently announcing that coverage of virtual visits with in-network providers will continue past the ongoing national emergency. The payer had announced in March that it was covering “telephone and video visits” to enable its members to more easily access health services from their homes.
The insurer said it managed 71,000 telehealth claims from March 16 to April 14, 18 times more than the number of claims submitted during that time period last year.
“We’re committed to helping our members get the care they need, and telehealth offers them and the providers they trust with more options that fit their everyday needs,” JD Hickey, the company’s president and CEO, said in a press release. “This recent period has proven virtual care can work for preventive, routine, and maintenance care, and we’re making this decision because the added convenience can bring better health.”
Right now, accommodating the new flood of patients seeking virtual care remains a challenge for both small practitioners and larger providers alike. Some are, as yet, unable to meet the increased demand and for many, the wait times are increasing. Despite the stressors that surround us all these days, this is the perfect time to evaluate this technology and its capacity to enhance care.
A recent paper from The American Journal of Managed Care discussed the need for and challenges to incorporating telemedicine. It concluded that “although certain legal, regulatory, and reimbursement challenges remain, the COVID-19 outbreak may be the right impetus for lawmakers and regulatory agencies to promulgate further measures that facilitate more widespread adoption of telemedicine.”
Under normal circumstances, regulations and pricing issues would hinder growth and adoption, as has been the case historically. If the incentives toward use are rescinded too quickly, the technology might return to obscurity, only to again be deemed essential during the next outbreak.
Another global public health crisis does, unfortunately, seem likely to happen. In under a decade we’ve seen MERS, Ebola, Zika virus and COVID-19, among others. The current situation has revealed the importance of telemedicine and made it an integral part of the greater healthcare system.
During this national emergency, Quest Diagnostics is committed to doing everything we can to better serve our communities. CGM ELVI is easy and quick to implement, and the app—available in both the Google Play and iTunes app stores—is available for patients and providers who are more comfortable using their mobile device.
Visit the CGM ELVI website to request a demo or for additional information on setting up this feature. You may also call CGM directly at 1.866.590.8895.