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How will Proposed Changes to CMS Telehealth Reimbursement Affect Adoption?

by Chilmark Team | November 13, 2018

Key Takeaways

  • CMS-proposed rule changes extend Medicare Advantage and Part D plan coverage for telehealth services starting in 2020
  • Proposal includes enhancements to the Star Ratings methodology, which include updating the cut-point determination methodology as well as adjustments for Star Ratings in times of uncertainty, such as hurricanes.
  • Under the proposed changes, starting in 2019 in Medicare FFS, CMS will reimburse for virtual check-ins, evaluation of patient submitted photos, and prolonged preventive services regardless of patient location and care facility.

What the Rule Changes Mean

doctor cares for medicare patient via telehealthOn Friday, October 26, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced several rule changes that affect how telehealth services will be covered under Medicare Advantage (MA) and the Medicare prescription drug program (Part D). These changes are in direct response to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which eliminated historical restrictions on telehealth reimbursement, and are intended to “improve quality of care and provide more plan choices for MA and Part D enrollees.”

Also included in the proposed rule changes are adjustments to methodologies and processes that should improve access to care, as well as recover funds from payments improperly applied to insurance companies. We view this as a positive development, especially as it relates to current and projected physician shortages. Greater reimbursement should allow for providing some basic services through telehealth applications, it is going to equip providers with the ability to “do more with less.”

Our recent report, Telehealth Beyond the Hospital, provides a detailed analysis of the telehealth market as a whole, but we felt it prudent to prepare a supplemental post to give a brief examination of how these rule changes could potentially impact the provision of healthcare services.

Easing Reimbursement via Classification

Telehealth services have previously seen limited implementation by MA plans because they have been traditionally classified as services covered by “supplementary medical insurance.” These new rule changes shift the classification of telehealth services to the “basic benefits” category. We have witnessed lagging adoption rates of telehealth technologies over the last several years, and view the inclusion of these services into the basic benefits category as a necessary step to increase their rate of use.

CMS expects that the inclusion of telehealth services in the basic benefits category will spur more MA plans to offer these benefits beginning in 2020, and increase their support of these services in subsequent years. This isn’t happening in a vacuum, and is in line with the broader push to promote telehealth services as viable alternatives and supplements to traditional care options. The move towards parity between physical visits and telehealth services has shown to increase reliance on telehealth services before: Michigan has seen a “77.5% increase in Telemedicine encounters after supporting service parity in telemedicine.”

This isn’t happening in a vacuum and is in line with the broader push to promote telehealth services as viable alternatives and supplements to traditional care options.

Driving Near-Term Adoption: Patient Satisfaction and Ease of Access

Recent surveys have shown that patients are growing more and more amenable to remote care options, especially if it reduces their out-of-pocket costs. The opportunity cost of non-reimbursed care is one of the primary barriers to provider adoption of telehealth services, and by removing this barrier we will hopefully see further alignment between providers and patients on this issue.

We see this alignment as a part of the greater industry shift towards value-based care (VBC). As we noted in our Patient Relationship Management (PRM) Market Scan Report, engagement was one of the areas where adoption of these new technologies for VBC was exceeding expectations. Increased reimbursement for telehealth should continue this positive trend and hopefully allow for the realization of some PRM benefits.

We predict that the CMS rule changes will encourage diversified managed care organizations (MCOs) to expand their current commercial telehealth contracts to their MA business and also potentially drive the adoption of telehealth offerings among that trend.

Impact on Providers and Vendors

These new rule changes have a large potential upside for all players in the telehealth market, but it is important to note that telehealth adoption has been incremental over the last several years and there is no reason to predict a stark diversion from that trend.

We predict that the CMS rule changes will encourage diversified managed care organizations (MCOs) to expand their current commercial telehealth contracts to their MA business and also potentially drive the adoption of telehealth offerings among that trend.

Vendors looking to capitalize on this incremental market growth are going to have to navigate the differing needs of commercial and Medicare providers. For commercial providers, telehealth is seen primarily as a cost-savings and efficiency tool. For Medicare providers, they are looking most closely at telehealth as a way to promote post-acute care management and patient engagement. To effectively sell to Medicare providers, vendors are going to have to tailor their tools and pitches to hit on the appropriate pain points.

Conclusion

As the costs of chronic condition management skyrocket, looking for innovative telehealth solutions is of paramount importance.  Reclassification as basic services and simplification of the reimbursement process will certainly help vendors supplying these solutions overcome potential buyer uncertainty on the ROI of their products.

The most important takeaway from these rule changes from an HCO perspective is that the future of value-based care is arriving quickly. HCOs need to prepare for this future by refreshing their care delivery strategies, especially as it relates to primary care. The primary care environment is changing, and HCOs need to closely examine what they need to provide in terms of physical locations, providers, and services for their patient populations. They then need to craft strategies to meet these evolving requirements.

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