The Commonwealth Fund released an issue brief this week reviewing state actions to expand individual and group health insurance coverage of telemedicine between March 2020 and March 2021.
It found that 22 states changed laws or policies during that time period to require more robust insurance coverage of telemedicine.
“If telemedicine proves to be a less costly way to deliver care, payers and consumers may benefit from expanding coverage of telemedicine after the pandemic,” wrote report authors.
WHY IT MATTERS
In March 2020, federal regulators temporarily relaxed restrictions for telemedicine visits for Medicare patients, raising payments to the same level as in-person visits and reducing cost-sharing, among other changes.
Officials encouraged states and insurers to provide similar flexibility under private insurance – and many took that encouragement to heart.
Of the 22 states that expanded access to telemedicine during the pandemic, the report found that most pursued changes via administrative action.
“Use of executive authority allowed states to move relatively quickly during the crisis, though it has meant that the new telemedicine coverage requirements are temporary,” wrote the researchers. They noted, for example, that seven governors included specific telemedicine coverage requirements in executive orders, which will expire after the public health emergency.
Some states used bulletins, notices, or executive orders from the department of insurance or a similar agency to enhance coverage.
New legislation, which takes more time, but is necessary for permanent changes, passed in eight states.
Utah, Illinois, West Virginia, New Hampshire and Massachusetts – which had not previously required coverage – changed their policies during the pandemic. At this point, 40 states require coverage.
These policies do not all carry equal impact. Eighteen states required coverage of audio-only services for the first time during the pandemic, bringing the total number up to 21. Four states eliminated cost-sharing for telemedicine services, and three added a requirement that cost sharing not exceed in-person identical services. And 10 states newly required insurers to pay providers the same for telemedicine and in-person visits.
Report authors noted that insurers were cooperative with these changes, but longer-term adoption of policies like reimbursement parity “would likely be contentious.” They pointed out the states will need data to inform debates on how best to regulate telemedicine.
In 2021, at least 30 states have weighed legislation that would revise telemedicine coverage standards, found the Commonwealth Fund.
Despite the known benefits of telemedicine, researchers also cautioned that it has not been equally beneficial to all patients.
“Research shows telemedicine use is lower in communities with higher rates of poverty and among patients with limited English proficiency, potentially undermining goals of expanding access to underserved communities and exacerbating health inequities,” read the report.
THE LARGER TREND
But a major question remains regarding federal legislation, which could fill in many state-by-state gaps and prevent a so-called “telehealth cliff.”
“If Congress does not act before the public health emergency ends, regulatory flexibilities that now ensure all Medicare beneficiaries maintain access to telehealth will go away,” said Kyle Zebley, director of public policy at the American Telemedicine Association, during a conference panel earlier this month.
ON THE RECORD
“Whether telemedicine reduces overall healthcare costs depends on how services are reimbursed and if virtual visits reduce other services or simply add to utilization,” said Commonwealth researchers. “Having access to data can help stakeholders understand how longer-term expansion of telemedicine affects access, cost, and quality of care.”