CMS' stance on permanent telehealth coverage: A timeline of Seema Verma's statements

Prior to COVID-19, CMS only covered telehealth in specific regions and circumstances with rates lower than in-person visits. However, the agency has made several provisions since March, including allowing coverage of audio-only visits and boosting reimbursement rates.

On June 17, the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee held a hearing to discuss lessons learned about telehealth during the pandemic and which provisions should become permanent. CMS has not yet announced any permanent updates for telehealth. 

Here is a timeline of CMS updates and statements from CMS Administrator Seema Verma over the last two months, as reported by Becker's Hospital Review:

April 26 – 'The genie's out of the bottle on this one': Seema Verma hints at the future of telehealth for CMS beneficiaries
Ms. Verma calls telehealth a "clear example of untapped innovation," according to The Wall Street Journal. She added "I think the genie's out of the bottle on this one. I think it's fair to say that the advent of telehealth has been just completely accelerated, that it's taken this crisis to push us to a new frontier, but there's absolutely no going back."

April 29 – Lawmakers set sights on telehealth as a way to strengthen and preserve Medicare
Democratic and Republican legislators express support to further expand telehealth services, especially for Medicare beneficiaries, during The Hill's virtual event.

May 1 – CMS ups telephone visit pay about 140%, covers telehealth physical therapy: 5 key updates
CMS expands its list of audio-only telephone services covered by Medicare, increasing payments for services from about $14 to $41 to about $46 to $110. The agency also allows physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech pathologists to deliver telehealth services during the pandemic.

May 22 – CMS expands telehealth for Medicare Advantage plans: 4 details
CMS finalizes a rule to encourage Medicare Advantage plans to increase telehealth benefits and plan options for beneficiaries in rural areas. The rule allows plans to count telehealth providers in some specialties, including dermatology, psychiatry and primary care, toward meeting CMS network adequacy standards.

May 26 – Some temporary telehealth provisions will become permanent, CMS chief says
During a news teleconference, Ms. Verma says that President Donald Trump "has made it clear that he wants to explore extending telehealth benefits more widely" and that the agency is in the process of rulemaking. She adds that she expects some CMS provisions extended during the pandemic temporarily to become permanent.

June 9 – Permanently higher telehealth pay rates under review, CMS says
During a STAT virtual event, Ms. Verma says that virtual visits increased 40-fold in some places during the pandemic, and that "people recognize the value of [telehealth], so it seems like it would not be a good thing to force our beneficiaries to go back to in-person visits." She says that the government is evaluating whether to permanently pay the same rates for telehealth visits as in-person visits, and that a permanent nationwide expansion would be up to Congress because current laws limit coverage.

June 17 – Telehealth important, but in-person care is 'gold standard,' CMS chief says
In an op-ed for CNN, Ms. Verma explains that while telehealth will remain "an important tool," she encourages in-person care for patients who need procedures and preventive care. "When it comes to telehealth, it took a crisis to push our country to a new frontier," she wrote. "Telehealth can never replace what was and remains the gold standard: in-person care. Physicians will always need to listen to their patients' heart and lungs; children will always need their vaccinations; and adults cannot go too long without cancer screenings."

More articles on telehealth:
New York expands Medicaid telemedicine services 
20 healthcare heavyweights form telehealth task force
FCC awards $23.25M more in telehealth funding to 62 providers during the program's 11th round

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