The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on March 17 lifted all restrictions on telehealth services for Americans covered by Medicare to address the threat of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic.
President Donald Trump announced the lifting of the limits during a press conference at the White House, calling it a “historic breakthrough.”
“This has not been done before,” the president said.
Previously, Medicare only covered telehealth services for those living in rural areas and brief visits for established patients. With the restrictions lifted, all 62 million Medicare beneficiaries can call a doctor’s office and request to have their appointments conducted remotely via software such as Skype and WhatsApp.
Medicare recipients are 65 years or older, making the group among the most vulnerable to the virus.
“This is a part of our larger effort around mitigation. As we are encouraging Americans to stay home whenever possible, we don’t want out Medicare policies getting in the way,” said CMS Administrator Seema Verma.
As a result, a person from the vulnerable population who needs a routine check-up won’t have to venture outside of his or her home and can avoid unnecessary exposure to the virus. Meanwhile, elderly Medicare recipients who are experiencing mild flu-like symptoms can avoid having to sit in waiting rooms with other vulnerable patients and see a doctor from the comfort of their homes.
Verma said that the agency made the change in accord with a recent appropriations bill and the emergency declaration issued by Trump.
“This action is part of our broader effort to make sure that government requirements, rules, and regulations don’t get in the way of patient care during an emergency,” Verma said.
“Medicare beneficiaries across the nation, no matter where they live, will now be able to receive a wide range of services via telehealth, without ever having to leave home,” she added.
The covered telehealth services aren’t limited to patients at home. Doctors can conduct a telehealth appointment for people at nursing homes and hospital outpatient departments, according to Verma.
Trump noted that the federal government has also lifted telehealth restrictions on states, which can now also cover such services.
The Trump administration has also temporarily suspended penalties for violating privacy regulations so that doctors can connect with patients using their own phones.
The lifting of the Medicare telehealth restrictions is part of the Trump administration’s broader effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The administration issued strict guidelines on March 16 for Americans to follow for the next 15 days, including requests to limit travel and social gatherings.