WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Tuesday announced an unprecedented expansion of telehealth services for seniors, an effort to prevent healthy and sick Americans alike from visiting doctor’s offices in person and risk spreading or catching the novel coronavirus.
“Medicare patients can now visit any doctor by phone or videoconference at no additional cost, including with commonly used services like FaceTime and Skype,” Trump said during a White House press briefing. “A historic breakthrough — this has not been done before.”
Medicare, the federal health insurer that provides care to individuals 65 or older and others with disabilities or long-term care needs, covers roughly 62 million Americans. The coronavirus and Covid-19, the respiratory disease it causes, often results in particularly severe symptoms for seniors and those with preexisting health conditions like heart or lung disease.
The action, officials said, eliminates the needs for seniors who require checkups or doctor visits unrelated to potential coronavirus infections to travel to in-person clinics and expose themselves to potential infection. Telehealth benefits had previously been restricted to seniors living in rural areas who had already sought care through a particular provider.
“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,” said Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. “And these services can also be provided in a variety of settings, including nursing homes, hospital outpatient departments, and more.”
CMS, Verma said, would exercise “enforcement discretion when it comes to collecting copays, so that costs won’t be a barrier.”
Trump urged seniors to use telehealth as much as possible in an effort to slow the virus’ spread and to maintain hospital capacity — presumably by shifting in-person visits to doctor’s offices and hospitals increasingly inundated by coronavirus cases to remote visits conducted by phone or various video chat platforms.
The administration’s action effectively waives many existing restrictions on telehealth. Verma and Trump also stressed that the federal government would stop enforcing numerous elements of HIPAA, the health privacy law that, until now, heavily regulated providers seeking to deliver care remotely. In a statement, health secretary Alex Azar said providers could offer telehealth benefits to seniors “at a lower cost than traditional services.”
The move comes after Trump signed a new law authorizing over $8 billion in new spending to combat the pandemic, including $500 million dedicated to helping clinicians expand telehealth services.
“In addition, states have the authority to cover telehealth services for their medical patients, Trump said. “And by doing this, the patient is not seeing the doctor per se, but they’re seeing the doctor, so there’s no getting close.”