telehealth

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According to a report published in the International Business Times, Medicare is poised to expand access to limited telehealth services to rural patients across the US. Telehealth makes it easier for both rural and urban patients to visit the doctor, but the Congressional Budget Office isn’t sure whether fully covering these services would raise or lower healthcare costs.

For decades, proponents of telehealth, also known as telemedicine, have pushed for the expanded use of communications technology to deliver healthcare services to underserved areas — both urban and rural. In its various forms, telehealth has been shown to expand access to care, reduce wait times for appointments, lower the cost of healthcare and improve patients’ health. Analysts at Towers Watson have predicted that U.S. companies could save as much as $6 billion in healthcare costs if all employees used telehealth coverage to the greatest possible extent. However, supporters have struggled to persuade insurers and government healthcare programs — especially Medicare, the nation’s healthcare insurance for people who are at least 65 years old — to cover these services at rates comparable to those physicians receive for treating patients through traditional visits.

“The goal of telemedicine is to get healthcare out to where the person is,” says Jonathan Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, a group that estimates roughly 12 million Americans used some form of telehealth in 2013. Linkous suspects the number has doubled since then.

Medicare only covers telehealth for a limited number of patients in designated rural areas, and those patients must still travel to a clinic to complete a session rather than log in directly from home. As a result, only 1% of Medicare beneficiaries use telehealth each year, and since Medicare coverage is used as a benchmark for grant funding and private insurers to set their own rates, investment has been limited since telehealth debuted in the 1990s.

“How do you expect a provider to provide these services through telehealth if they don’t get paid for it?” Mei Wa Kwong, senior policy associate at the Center for Connected Health Policy, says. “It kind of holds it back.”

But that may soon change, as multiple federal campaigns aim to relax Medicare’s restrictions and provide patients with greater access to telehealth services. If successful, these changes could have a domino effect by demonstrating the value of these services more broadly as support for telehealth builds in the private sector and among consumers.

Read the full article at International Business Times


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