President Donald Trump on Monday signed an executive order to further expand access to telehealth services where healthcare practitioners can communicate and provide services for their patients remotely via phone calls or video calls—a move the president says will help seniors and rural Americans better access healthcare.
“Expanded access to medical care through telemedicine is essential to fighting the virus,” Trump said in a statement announcing the move.
Near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration had made telehealth criteria more flexible regarding what services qualify under telehealth, as well as the type of healthcare practitioner who may provide telehealth services, and under what circumstances telehealth can be provided.
“When the invisible enemy struck our shores, I took immediate action to eliminate regulatory barriers to telehealth, making it easier for patients to consult with doctors from safety and convenience. And really, they have great safety and great convenience right from their homes,” Trump told reporters at a press conference at the White House.
“Today I’m taking action to ensure telehealth is here to stay,” the president said. “I signed an executive order to make many of our regulatory reforms permanent.
“We worked with the leaders of major health insurance companies to ensure coverage for the telehealth visits related to coronavirus,” Trump explained about the administration’s earlier actions. “We cut red tape to allow many services to be conducted by phone, rather than video, which is much simpler, providing a much easier option for many seniors in particular.”
The president’s latest executive order builds upon such changes, including making some of the changes permanent.
“The order builds upon a series of actions we’ve all taken to make telehealth available to all,” Trump said. “We ensured that Medicare covers telehealth visits at no additional cost. That’s no additional cost. And co-payments can be waived for telehealth services.”
Trump said that the administration has now “vastly expanded coverage, allowing Medicare to cover more than 135 new services” through telehealth. The services include physical therapy, emergency department visits, home visits, mental health counseling, and substance abuse treatment.
He added that the executive order will also expand healthcare access in rural America.
In the executive order, Trump acknowledged that rural Americans face “unique challenges” accessing healthcare services, including limited transportation, shortages of healthcare workers in rural areas, and “an inability to fully benefit from technological and care-delivery innovations.”
“These factors have contributed to financial insecurity and impaired health outcomes for rural Americans, who are more likely to die from five leading causes, many of which are preventable, than their urban counterparts,” the executive order states. “That gap widened from 2010 to 2017 for cancer, heart disease, and chronic lower respiratory disease.”
Trump said that his order will direct federal agencies to “deploy strategic investments” in rural communications infrastructure to enable quick and easy access for rural Americans. He also said he will be directing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Agriculture, and the Federal Communications Commission to “form a task force that will break down barriers to expanding rural healthcare.”
“Additionally, revenue for rural providers vary significantly from month to month, making it difficult for many to stay in business. Many, many are having a very difficult time,” Trump noted at the press conference. “To help fix this problem, my order will create a voluntary Medicare payment system that will give rural hospitals flexibility—really, great flexibility—and a more consistent income stream to better serve their patients.”
The executive order will direct the HHS to announce a new model to test “innovative payment mechanisms” within 30 days.
According to the executive order, a report by the HHS showed that in April, 43.5 percent of Medicare fee-for-service primary care visits were provided through telehealth, compared to February’s figure of 0.1 percent, before the public health emergency was declared on the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, also known as the novel coronavirus. Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) noted a jump in virtual visits for its beneficiaries from about 14,000 in a given week prior to the pandemic to some 1.7 million within just the last week of April.
Trump noted in the order that telehealth visits continued to be frequent after in-person primary care visits resumed in May, which suggests that telehealth is likely to be in more permanent demand going forward.