Pursuant to the 21st Century Cures Act of 2016, Congress mandated the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (“MedPAC”) to provide a report to Congress by March 15, 2018, in which MedPAC has been asked to answer the following questions:
- Under the Medicare Fee-for-Service program (Parts A and B), what is the current coverage of telehealth services?
- Currently, what coverage do commercial health plans offer for telehealth services?
- In what ways can the Medicare Fee-for-Service program adopt some or all the telehealth service coverage presently found in commercial health plans?
Earlier this month, at the MedPAC public meeting, the Commission presented a general summary regarding the first of these three questions, specifically the Medicare Fee-for-Service program’s current coverage of telehealth services. MedPAC examined four different aspects of the Medicare Fee-for-Service program that currently address coverage of telehealth services: (1) the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule; (2) other Fee-for-Service payment models within the Medicare program (e.g., inpatient / outpatient hospital services); (3) the Medicare Advantage program; and (4) the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation initiatives.
Medicare Physician Fee Schedule (“PFS”). Presently, Medicare PFS coverage of telehealth services is the most constrained because of the concern of overutilization from volume incentive. Unlike other fee-for-service models utilized by the Medicare program (e.g., MA program, CMMI initiatives) there is no associated cost risk to providers who utilize telehealth services under the Medicare PFS (i.e., no fixed payment, no cap constraints); therefore, the Medicare PFS contains comparatively strict parameters that must be met in order for Medicare to provide reimbursement for telehealth services. For example, the Medicare PFS only covers telehealth services that originate in rural areas and that are performed at one of several specific types of facilities. Furthermore, the Medicare PFS only will cover two types of telehealth modalities, two-way video (synchronous), and store-and-forward (asynchronous) technology, and the latter of these only if services are provided to Medicare beneficiaries residing in Alaska or Hawaii. The Medicare PFS has designated telehealth FFS codes for limited physician services, including office visits, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and pharmacy management services. Under the Medicare PFS telehealth services also may be included in larger fixed payments that resemble remote patient monitoring activities (e.g., transitional care management services, chronic care management services) as well as through bundled payments for such things as the 90-day global surgery bundle and payments for cardiac monitoring devices. Interestingly, because some of these services (despite being provided via telehealth modalities) are not part of the official Medicare PFS list of telehealth FFS codes, they are not constrained by the current Medicare PFS rules and requirements for provision of telehealth services (e.g., originating site rules).
Other Medicare Fee-For-Service (“FFS”) Payment Models. Within the Medicare program, various other FFS payment models exist for provision of services to beneficiaries, with respect to services including inpatient/outpatient hospital services, skilled nursing facilities (“SNFs”), inpatient rehabilitation facilities (“IRFs”), dialsysis facilities, and long-term acute care hospitals (“LTACHs”). In contrast to the Medicare PFS rules and requirements for provision of telehealth services, Medicare coverage of telehealth services under these other Medicare FFS payment models has been more flexible because both providers and health plans bear risk if the cost of a beneficiary encounter exceeds the fixed payment for that encounter. Under these Medicare FFS payment models, providers are incentivized to use telehealth services only if doing so would reduce the cost of providing the services. Although under most of these other Medicare FFS payment models, providers may include the costs associated with telehealth services costs on their annual cost reports as allowable costs, there are some exceptions to this general rule (specifically, home health agencies and hospice agencies) that may not include these costs on their annual cost reports.
Medicare Advantage (“MA”) Program. Under the MA program, payments to health plans are capitated and health plans must provide coverage for any telehealth services that are covered under the existing Medicare PFS, so as a result coverage for these services under the MA program also is constrained by the same PFS rules and regulations described above. However, by contrast, the MA program extends to these health plans the flexibility to finance coverage of additional telehealth services through a supplemental premium or their rebate dollars. Although the telehealth services offered by these health plans (as supplemental benefits) may not be built into the bids these health plans submit to the MA program, any savings from the health plans’ use of such services can be captured by the health plans in their required reporting to CMS. Similar to FFS, there is an incentive to use telehealth service if it reduces costs.
Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (“CMMI”) Initiatives. Through the CMMI, selected pilot programs have been given waivers by CMS to incorporate the use of telehealth services beyond what is currently permitted through the Medicare PFS rules and regulations. For example, some accountable care organizations (“ACOs”), known as the “Next Generation ACOs”, have received CMMI waivers to use telehealth services in urban settings and/or beneficiaries’ homes (contrary to current Medicare PFS coverage rules and requirements). Other ACOs have received CMMI waivers allowing physicians to receive Medicare FFS payment rates for telehealth visits while the ACO remains at risk for beneficiaries’ total spending. Many of the telehealth initiatives made possible by these CMMI waivers have arguably created greater incentive for Medicare providers to utilize telehealth service if they can have the effect of curbing associated costs.
At the recent meeting MedPAC also reported, based on the limited data currently available, on beneficiary utilization of telehealth services under the Medicare PFS. According to MedPAC, in 2016 approximately 0.3 percent of all Medicare beneficiaries (for Part B) utilized telehealth services, amounting to approximately $27 million for just over 300,000 encounters in total. MedPAC noted that the most common telehealth services utilized by Part B beneficiaries in 2016 were basic office visits, mental health services, and follow-up care. Additionally, approximately 2,000 ESRD-related visits and 2,000 telestroke visits occurred in 2016. Although this utilization was comparatively low, MedPAC reported an increased use of telehealth services, mostly in subsequent nursing care, psychotherapy, and pharmacological management. According to MedPAC, between 2014 and 2016 the number of telehealth visits per 1,000 beneficiaries increased by approximately 79 percent, compared to an average 3 or 4 percent increase for all Medicare physician services within that same two-year period. Also, MedPAC noted that telehealth users were disproportionately dually eligible (for Medicare and Medicaid), located in rural areas, and dealing with chronic care conditions (e.g., mental health conditions, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
MedPAC will continue its examination of telehealth services by addressing the latter two questions in the following two months, with the intention to review the entirety of its findings in January 2018 (prior to publishing the March 2018 report). Although MedPAC’s upcoming meetings most likely will focus (with respect to telehealth services) on its June 2016 report findings, the Commission hopefully will start to combine its current examination of telehealth services with its June 2016 recommendations to policymakers regarding telehealth (e.g., expanding Medicare PFS coverage of telehealth services).