HHS-OIG Reports on Pandemic Medicare Telehealth Trends to Inform Permanent Policies

Center for Connected Health Policy

Nov. 2, 2021

The Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG) released a telehealth report on October 18th that looked at the relationship between providers and Medicare patients utilizing telehealth between March and December 2020. Specifically, HHS-OIG examined encounter claims data to determine the presence of pre-existing relationships, dates of any prior visits, and the types of services provided.

The Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG) released a telehealth report on October 18th that looked at the relationship between providers and Medicare patients utilizing telehealth between March and December 2020. Specifically, HHS-OIG examined encounter claims data to determine the presence of pre-existing relationships, dates of any prior visits, and the types of services provided. Interestingly, it was found that though pre-pandemic requirements limiting telehealth visits to established patients were waived, 84% of visits still occurred within those parameters. In addition, as policymakers consider making some telehealth pandemic policies permanent, some stakeholders have suggested a need to require an in-person visit within a certain period of time in order to be eligible for a telehealth visit. However, the data collected by HHS-OIG shows such requirements may not be necessary, as Medicare patients were found to already have had an in-person visit on average within four months prior to the telehealth visit without such a requirement.

Additional findings included:
Beneficiaries most commonly received e-visits, virtual check-ins, and telephone evaluation and management services via telehealth from providers with whom they had an established relationship
Beneficiaries received about 45.5 million office visits delivered via telehealth, which accounted for nearly half of all telehealth services
86% of traditional Medicare beneficiaries received a telehealth service from providers with whom they had an established relationship, compared to 81% of Medicare Advantage
Beneficiaries who received home visits via telehealth, which represented only 1% of all services provided via telehealth, were the least likely to have an established relationship with their providers
The average amount of time between beneficiaries’ in-person visits and their first telehealth services varied by type of service
Beneficiaries who received home visits via telehealth had an in-person visit with their providers at an average of around 9 months prior to first telehealth service
Beneficiaries who received nursing home visits and assisted living visits via telehealth had an in-person visit at an average of 2 months prior to their first telehealth service
HHS-OIG notes that the provision of this data seeks to inform policymakers looking at long-term telehealth policy and making certain pandemic expansions permanent, especially in light of concerns around telehealth fraud and abuse. For instance, it could help in examining the necessity of one of the most controversial, and confusing, permanent federal changes made thus far as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which post-PHE will require an initial in-person visit within 6-months of a tele-behavioral health visit for purposes of Medicare reimbursement. However, the requirement only applies if the service is not provided in a geographically rural area and at a qualifying medical facility. There is also an exception for treatment of substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health treatment. In addition, CMS is proposing to make the 6-month in-person visit a requirement for subsequent visits in the proposed calendar year 2022 physician fee schedule. For non-behavioral health visits, the 6-month requirement wouldn’t apply, however patients would need to be located in a rural area and eligible facility type to qualify for Medicare reimbursement.

Some Medicaid programs are considering limiting telehealth use to established patients, occasionally also applying restrictions to specific modalities and services. However, the HHS-OIG findings may suggest that it is unnecessary to limit telehealth to certain patients and services to prevent fraud and abuse as standard practice may already be providing sufficient guardrails in those respects. In addition, the study findings could indicate that the issue may be more related to general standard of care concerns that apply across all services, not just those delivered via telehealth. The balance may then include looking at how to manage health care fraud generally, which elsewhere HHS-OIG has clarified that most fraud is not telehealth specific. The issue could then boil down to how much autonomy to provide clinicians when making medical determinations, including when a telehealth visit is appropriate. Typically oversight in that respect has been under the purview of clinical licensing boards, not governed by general laws, but as we shift outside of the pandemic it is possible we may see additional shifts in terms of these policy approaches.

As policymakers balance these multiple findings, perspectives and concerns, it remains to be seen how such data will be applied or used to justify permanent policies. It will also be important to continue to weigh these factors against general access to care issues so as to not inadvertently limit telehealth as a means of ensuring patients can receive necessary medical services. Additional information on the HHS-OIG study can be found by viewing the brief and complete report.