telehealth

Telehealth Policies May Get Extended, but Conference Speakers Call for More Research

Although telehealth policies that were put in place in March 2020 following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic are set to expire at the end of the year, congressional leaders are taking steps to extend the policies for an additional two years. Even if the legislation passes, more research needs to be done to assess the benefits and downsides of treating people virtually from a payer, provider and patient perspective, according to speakers at a May 1 panel organized by the National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM) Foundation.

The House Ways and Means Committee on May 8 unanimously advanced legislation that would preserve Medicare beneficiaries’ access to telehealth through 2026. Reps. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) and Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) are sponsors of bill H.R. 8261, which is known as the Preserving Telehealth, Hospital, and Ambulance Access Act.

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Employer Group Fires First Shot in Fight Over Mental Health Parity Regs

The ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC), a benefits trade group for large employers, launched an ad campaign attacking the Biden administration’s mental health parity policies — a notable escalation in plan sponsors’ intensifying opposition to the administration’s approach to mental health care access, which could ultimately lead to litigation.

In a press release, ERIC said it hopes to influence upcoming mental health parity regulation, noting that “departments of President Biden’s administration, including the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Labor (DOL) and the Treasury are finalizing proposed rule changes regarding mental health and substance use disorder parity.” The expected rule would be a finalized version of a regulation released in September 2023, which calls for much stricter network adequacy standards than were required in previous parity rulemaking.

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New Billing Codes Led to Explosion of Patient-Messaging Claims

The typical cost for a patient-provider email messaging claim was $39 in 2021, including both the portion paid by health plans and by patients. Although insurers covered the full cost for 82% of these claims, the patients who need to pay out of pocket typically spent $25 on a typical email message, according to Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker.

Use of electronic health communications has exploded since the COVID pandemic as more patients are seeking medical care remotely. CMS introduced several new billing codes in 2020 to help health care providers bill patients and insurers for a range of digital health services including electronic visits or asynchronous patient portal messages that require medical decision-making and at least five minutes of clinician time over a seven-day period.

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MA Plans, Vendors Avoid ‘One-Size-Fits-All’ Approach to Digital Engagement

As Medicare members become increasingly comfortable with using technology to manage their care at home, tech-enabled vendors continue to flood the Medicare Advantage space to offer solutions aimed at everything from fall prevention and functional mobility to specific conditions like Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease. Speaking at the 7th Annual Medicare Advantage Leadership Innovations forum, held Jan. 30 and 31 in Scottsdale, Arizona, vendors and MA plans shared the nuanced and personalized approaches they’ve taken to engage seniors with digital solutions.

“I think one of the challenges with [seniors and] technology is trying to really navigate tension between high tech and high touch. And I think that’s one of the things that you need to really figure out with your members early on: What are their preferences and needs? What resources do they have available?” said Joel Salinas, M.D., chief medical officer with Isaac Health, who spoke on a member engagement panel moderated by AIS Health, a division of MMIT.

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UnitedHealth Aims to Take ‘Guess Work’ Out of Assessing Health, Well-Being Offerings

Numerous companies have developed health and well-being apps and programs, making it difficult sometimes for companies to assess them and choose which ones to offer their employees. With this problem in mind, UnitedHealthcare recently rolled out UHC Hub, a platform that helps self-insured employers select and purchase health and well-being programs.

The vendors participating in the UHC Hub include Teladoc Health, a leading telehealth company; Noom, a subscription-based app for weight management and healthier living; and Cleo, a company that offers support for parents and caregiving.

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News Briefs: Trump Revives ACA Repeal Talk

Former President and current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump posted on TruthSocial on Nov. 25 that he is “seriously looking at alternatives” to the Affordable Care Act. He added that the failure to overturn the ACA during his presidency “was a low point for the Republican Party, but we should never give up!” Following Trump’s comments, Citi analyst Jason Cassorla wrote in a note to clients that “we got the sense that the Trump headline didn’t have as much of a dampening impact in comparison to the headlines from back in 2017 when the repeal/replace rhetoric was in full swing and Republicans offered alternative such as block grants and other considerations.” Cassorla added that “as the 2024 election rhetoric heats up, we remain watchful of any momentum change on this front.”

CVS Health Corp.-owned Aetna has reversed course on a previously announced telehealth coverage change, Politico reported. The insurer had planned on ending virtual coverage for intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization program care on Dec. 1, but an Aetna spokesperson told Politico that Aetna would no longer go through with that decision. Groups such as the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the Consortium Representing Eating Disorders Care raised concerns about the proposed change.

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Nurse Practitioners, Urgent Care Take Center Stage as Patient Trends Shift

Fewer people with employment-based health plans visited primary care practices, while more have turned to telemedicine and urgent care clinics since the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report published by the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Using claims data from 2013 to 2021, researchers found that primary care office visits at a family/general practice, internal medicine practice or with a medical doctor dropped during that time. The share of visits with a nurse practitioner, however, increased significantly, from 4% in 2013 to 16% in 2021.

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Decline in Primary Care Use Presents Challenge for Payers

A new report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) confirms that primary care for commercially insured patients is in the midst of a significant transformation. In a study of claims data from 2013 to 2021, EBRI found that fewer patients have a primary care practitioner (PCP), more non-physician practitioners deliver primary care than ever, and sites of care are changing. And the author of the report says he believes the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the shift.

EBRI’s findings are a mixed bag for payers. On the one hand, the report confirms that the size of the workforce able to deliver primary care is likely growing, and more patients may have better access to a variety of primary care options: 95-97% of all primary care visits were in an office setting prior to 2020, but that share declined to 86% in 2020. Seven to eight percent of primary care visits went to telemedicine that year and 3-4% went to urgent care clinics. However, the report also found that primary care costs have not gone down despite broader access.

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Senate Could Make Medicare Telehealth Rules Permanent

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee seems poised to take up legislation that would make permanent the significant, pandemic-era reforms to Medicare telehealth rules, including rules governing site of care origination and audio-only telehealth encounters, which are otherwise set to expire at the end of next year. Medicare Advantage plan and provider trade groups back the legislation and have pushed for telehealth reforms to be permanent when they were up for renewal in previous legislative cycles.

Emergency reforms to Medicare reimbursement rules were a key reason that the telehealth industry boomed in recent years. Telehealth was the only option for many types of outpatient care during the early parts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and patients, plans and providers became accustomed to using telehealth modalities for a wide variety of low-acuity encounters. Those encounters wouldn’t have been reimbursable if it weren’t for temporary, emergency reforms of Medicare telehealth billing rules passed as parts of COVID relief bills and executive orders by Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

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Surveys Show Plan Sponsors Are More Hesitant to Shift Costs to Employees

Two recent surveys from KFF and WTW indicate employer-sponsored health plans are concerned with rising health care costs, driven by factors such as inflation, increased utilization and rising prescription drug expenditures. However, the results suggest that employers are becoming more hesitant to raise health insurance costs for workers at a higher rate than their salary increases.

While the average annual family premiums for employer-sponsored coverage increased 7% this year to $23,968 after not increasing a year ago, according to the KFF Employer Health Benefits Survey, workers’ average wages increased 5.2% and inflation was up by 5.8%. During the past five years, premiums increased 22%, while wages rose by 27% and inflation increased 21%.

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