Medicare Telehealth Spending Soars, But Widespread Implementation Still Has A Long Way To Go

In a world that increasingly relies on technology, it looks as if telehealth, the means of delivering medical services through remote and digital means, is really catching on — even amongst seniors enrolled in Medicare. But even though Medicare telehealth spending increased by 28% in the last year alone, experts say that whether this telemedicine will become the widespread standard of care is another question entirely.
Approximately 45 million people ages 65 and older are currently enrolled in Medicare. Although the future of the program may currently hang in the balance, many Medicare recipients are taking full advantage of its benefits in the present. For any seniors, those benefits include the use of telehealth services, which can provide virtual care for everything from the common cold to more serious diagnoses.

In 2016 alone, Medicare telehealth payments grew to $28,748,210, up from $22,449,986 the previous year. Telehealth claims numbers grew as well, to 496,396 from 372,518 in 2015, representing a 33% increase. According to the report published in the National Law Review, these increases can be attributed to “more providers using telehealth services with their traditional Medicare FFS [fee-for-service] beneficiaries.”

But while more providers have embraced this technology, some experts say there’s still a long way to go. Despite the fact that 76% of hospitals and health systems in the U.S. either currently offer telehealth services or plan to in the coming year, that still leaves many Americans without this option. This is of particular concern to those living in remote locations, as more than two dozen rural hospitals have shut down since 2013 all across the United States. And while the figures cited in the report may seem impressive on their own, telehealth spending still represents merely a fraction of the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services’ total payments, which are upwards of $600 billion a year.

Fortunately, there are some recently introduced bills that could legally convince CMS to make some changes. For example, the CHRONIC Care Act would, among other things, allow those on Medicare Advantage to use certain telemedicine services, which would promote home care. And the Telehealth Enhancement Act would add home telehealth sites, critical access hospitals, and more in urban and low-population areas and would recognize telehealth and remote patient monitoring within bundled payment options through Medicare Advantage.

While differing state laws and technological costs still mean that nationwide accessibility may remain a bit of a question mark, there are actually a lot of other arguments for widespread implementation than just patient convenience. Hospitals could potentially save $20,841 by making the switch while bringing additional revenues to local pharmacies and labs. And patients could save over $5,000 in travel expenses and over $3,000 in lost wages.

For now, patients may have to see what unfolds when it comes to telemedicine. In the meantime, it’s not a bad idea to use your telehealth services whenever you may need them.

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