CMS telehealth pandemic waivers boosted usage among disadvantaged, urban patients

Broadening telehealth usage areas when in-person visits are restricted boosts–telehealth usage. Beyond the tautology, the surprising finding here is that it benefited two groups that telehealth hasn’t done well with prior to the pandemic: those living in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods and in metropolitan areas. It also increased usage among women and those of Asian and Hispanic heritage.

The Johns Hopkins study, published in Health Affairs (abstract only, restricted access), reviewed 30 million Medicare fee-for-service claims to quantify outpatient telemedicine use before and after the Medicare telemedicine coverage waiver that took effect on 6 March 2020. Prior to the waiver, Medicare beneficiaries were covered very narrowly for telehealth, in designated rural areas and specific designated facilities, using synchronous audio/video only–a total of 0.42% with one outpatient visit. After the waiver, this grew to 9.97% of patients with at least one outpatient telemedicine visit. Medicare had previously reported that Medicare beneficiary telehealth usage had grown to over 40% during the pandemic.

According to the study abstract, “After adjustment [for demographic variables], our data suggest that the coverage waiver increased access to telemedicine for all Medicare populations, including people residing in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, although the odds of use were persistently lower with increasing age.” Other studies had found disparities based on demographics such as race, income, and residential location, with higher status pointing to greater telehealth usage, but this study indicates that the loosening of restrictions did not contribute further to these disparities. Thus the logic points to more availability (access) powering increased usage, or at least the odds of use, in this disadvantaged/minority population. 

It is certainly an argument for retaining most of the telehealth waivers–which will require Federal legislation for Medicare after the 90-day Public Health Emergency renewal expires in mid-July, if not renewed. Healthcare Finance, FierceHealthcare

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