• CMS Heeds AAFP's Call to Dramatically Expand Telehealth

    Agency Delivers Crucial Flexibility to FPs During COVID-19 Emergency

    April 01, 2020 11:30 am News Staff – The Academy's push to give family physicians broad latitude to use telehealth in the fight against COVID-19 delivered a substantial win March 30, when CMS announced plans to temporarily relax a number of key regulations and backdate implementation to March 1.

    physician on phone looking at chart

    The move, which includes other measures to relieve administrative burden and reinforce clinician staffing, positions family physicians to respond far more nimbly against the pandemic.

    It's the latest positive result to emerge from intense AAFP lobbying efforts to ensure that primary care practices are able to treat existing and new patients while limiting the financial impact of the pandemic.

    CMS is still preparing its interim final rule for official publication. For now, it has issued a general fact sheet as well as one for clinicians.

    The Academy has analyzed these available materials and updated its COVID-19 telehealth page. (Like the rest of the dedicated coronavirus content on AAFP.org, this page is frequently revised to reflect the latest information.)

    The AAFP's Government Relations Division has identified key takeaways from CMS' action, noting that the changes promote telehealth in Medicare by

    • adding more than 80 services that can be furnished via telehealth and allowing evaluation of beneficiaries via audio-only phone calls (which the Academy specifically asked CMS for in a March 26 letter);
    • allowing telehealth visits to be billed at the same rate as in-person visits; and
    • allowing physicians to supervise clinical staff using virtual technologies when appropriate, instead of requiring in-person presence.

    CMS also means to reduce administrative burden by allowing Medicare coverage for respiratory-related devices and equipment for any medical reason a clinician identifies, granting prmore time to provide patients a copy of their medical record, and offering temporary relief from many audit and reporting requirements by extending reporting deadlines and suspending documentation requests.

    Finally, the March 30 announcement said that the agency would encourage an expansion of the health care workforce and increase hospital capacity. New measures to support these goals include

    • allowing clinicians, hospitals and other institutional health care providers and suppliers to temporarily enroll in Medicare to provide care during the public health emergency;
    • allowing nonhospital spaces to be used for patient care (pending state approval); and
    • letting physician-owned hospitals increase the number of licensed beds, operating rooms and procedure rooms during the emergency.

    Meanwhile, the AAFP's Center for State Policy is offering AAFP constituent chapter executives a template letter they can send directly to their states' Medicaid agencies that calls for telephone-only codes, telemedicine parity and allowances that Medicaid managed care organizations permit Medicaid beneficiaries to receive virtual care from their regular health care providers.

    The CSP continues to update its tracker for COVID-19 and telemedicine legislation, and the AAFP-affiliated Alliance for Connected Care is also monitoring state-by-state expansion of telehealth.

    The Academy is also studying a plan announced March 30 by the Federal Communications Commission to provide $200 million to support use of telehealth services. If adopted, this program would help eligible health care providers pay for broadband connectivity and devices necessary to deliver telehealth services.