Telemedicine is booming during the pandemic — will insurance keep paying?

Medical

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Pat Gordon, a Round Rock woman covered by Medicare, hadn’t used telemedicine before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You can communicate through these methods, so why not?” she said.

President Donald Trump lifted restrictions on telemedicine in March to improve patient access to health care during the pandemic. After Medicare began covering telemedicine visits at the same cost as in-person visits, many private insurers followed suit.

But the changes are only temporary and it’s unclear if insurance companies, and the federal government, will continue to cover telemedicine visits after the pandemic.

“For people who have a challenge with scheduling or transportation or who might be home-bound for different reasons, this is a huge, huge benefit,” said Lisa Kirsch, senior policy director for Dell Medical School in Austin. “We just want to highlight that this has been a real benefit.”

Kirsch said an extension from the federal government would be the main driver in building upon the growth of telemedicine. If Medicare continues to provide full coverage of telemedicine visits, private insurers are more likely to jump on board.

A report by consulting firm Foster & Sullivan estimated telemedicine services will grow seven-fold by 2025.

“Let’s not lose what we’ve gained from this,” Kirsch said.

An executive order signed by President Trump on Monday expanded the role of telemedicine for Medicare patients in rural areas. Administration officials said he’s ready to sign legislation expanding telemedicine access for all Medicare patients if Congress takes action.

Dr. Mark Queralt, clinical director of the Back and Neck Pain Center, is able to serve around 80% of his patients through virtual visits which include physical exams.

He’s skeptical that insurance companies will continue to fully cover telemedicine visits after the pandemic but sees the innovation as a way to improve access and reduce the cost for patients.

“I’m a physician expert and we have a rehab expert in the same visit so you actually have zero wait time between the time of seeing your physician and the rehab expert,” Queralt told KXAN.

In February, 0.1% of Medicare primary care visits were conducted through telemedicine, according to a report released by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. By June, nearly half of Medicare primary care visits took place virtually.

For many patients, like Gordon, telemedicine has provided a welcomed convenience. But without government intervention, the service could become a rarity once again.

“I felt like I got the same level of care. What I would have done is gone into the office and explained what is going on and gotten the same answer,” Gordon said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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