KFF Report on Telehealth - Medicare Use Offers Future Policy Implications

Center for Connected Health Policy

June 2021

Given the limitations around Medicare telehealth coverage pre-pandemic, many of these individuals had little experience with telehealth previously, offering an important perspective to inform ongoing telehealth policy considerations. More work will need to be done to further education around telehealth and ensure its availability to all communities.

A Kaiser Family Foundation brief presents new information and analysis of Medicare beneficiaries’ utilization of telehealth using Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) survey data from between summer and fall of 2020 while CMS emergency telehealth expansions were in effect. Given the limitations around Medicare telehealth coverage pre-pandemic, many of these individuals had little experience with telehealth previously, offering an important perspective to inform ongoing telehealth policy considerations. For instance, while 64% of beneficiaries said their provider currently offers telehealth appointments, only 18% said their provider offered telehealth prior to the pandemic. However, nearly a quarter of beneficiaries said they don’t know if their provider offers telehealth appointments, with the percentage even larger among rural beneficiaries. Therefore, while expanded policies appear to have increased access to services via telehealth, more work will need to be done to further education around telehealth and ensure its availability to all communities.

Additional findings from the study include:
-Over 1 in 4 (27% or 15 million) of Medicare beneficiaries had a telehealth visit between the summer and
fall of 2020
-The majority of Medicare beneficiaries (56%) used telephone only
*Video was 28%
*Both video and telephone was 16%
-The share of Medicare beneficiaries who had a telehealth visit using telephone only was higher among:
*Those age 75 and older (65%)
*Hispanic beneficiaries (61%)
*Those living in rural areas (65%)
*Those enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid (67%)

The report also found that rural Medicare beneficiaries were less likely than urban beneficiaries to have a telehealth visit with a doctor or other health professional (21% vs. 28%, respectively). However, among Medicare beneficiaries with a usual source of care and whose usual provider offers telehealth, they found no significant difference between the share of rural and urban Medicare beneficiaries who had a telehealth visit (43% and 45%, respectively). They note this difference is likely driven by the fact that rural Medicare beneficiaries were more likely than urban Medicare beneficiaries to say they do not know if their usual provider offers telehealth (30% vs. 21%, respectively).

Similarly, among Medicare beneficiaries with a usual source of care whose usual provider offers telehealth, they found that a larger share of Black and Hispanic beneficiaries had a telehealth visit compared to White beneficiaries (52%, 52%, and 43%). However, among the total Medicare population, the difference in the share of Black and White beneficiaries who reported having a telehealth visit was not statistically significant (30% vs. 26%), while a larger share of Hispanic beneficiaries than White beneficiaries had a telehealth visit (33% vs. 26%). They note that for Black Medicare beneficiaries, this result is likely related to the fact that nearly a quarter of Black beneficiaries overall (23%) say their usual provider does not offer telehealth appointments, compared to 12% of White beneficiaries and 15% of Hispanic beneficiaries.

Looking forward, the authors suggest that since they found greater usage of telehealth amongst those with disabilities, low incomes, and in communities of color, the temporary expansions of coverage may be helping more disadvantaged populations access care. In addition, since most services are being provided via audio-only, they state going back to requiring two-way video could be a barrier for many subgroups of the Medicare population. As policymakers continue to request data on telehealth and consider making certain emergency policies permanent, many are looking to Medicare to lead the way, and this information further confirms the importance of maintaining access to all telehealth modalities in all communities, or risk potentially exacerbating existing disparities even further post-pandemic. Additional expansion and education of telehealth availability will continue to remain necessary as well. More information on the survey and analysis can be found in the full issue brief - https://www.kff.org/medicare/issue-brief/medicare-and-telehealth-coverage-and-use-during-the-covid-19-pandemic-and-options-for-the-future/.