Archived Insight | March 10, 2020

Medicare Telehealth Expansion in COVID-19 Spending Law

The Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2020, which was signed into law on March 6, 2020 (Pub. Law 116-123), provides $8.3 billion in emergency funding for federal agencies to respond to the latest coronavirus outbreak, COVID-19.

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Medicare allowed to use telehealth services

The Act also allows HHS to waive certain Medicare requirements regarding telehealth services during the COVID-19 public health emergency. In general, Medicare Part B covers telehealth services provided by a qualified provider who uses an interactive, two-way telecommunications system like real-time audio or video. However, these services are only available in certain rural areas and patients must be in a health facility; they cannot use a telehealth service at home.

During the COVID-19 emergency period, HHS Secretary Alex Azar may waive the requirements that the services must only be used in certain rural areas. However, the Act requires patients to have a pre-existing relationship with the service provider, because the provider must be an entity who treated the patient within the previous three years. The Act also permits use of a smartphone for telehealth services, in addition to other communications systems.

Expansion of telehealth services will allow individuals who believe they may have COVID-19 to be seen at home rather than office visits or emergency room visits, where they may inadvertently spread the disease further. However, patients would still need to be tested for the disease in person. Medicare Advantage programs may have more expansive telehealth programs under existing law.

Appropriations to fight the COVID-19 outbreak

The Act is intended to increase spending on efforts to fight COVID-19 and its effects on the economy, including by:

  • Developing, manufacturing, and procuring vaccines and other medical supplies
  • Making grants available to state, local and tribal public health agencies and organizations
  • Making disaster loans available to small businesses affected by the outbreak
  • Financing evacuations and emergency preparedness activities at U.S. embassies and other State Department facilities
  • Providing humanitarian assistance and support for health systems in affected countries

The Act provides supplemental appropriations for agencies within HHS, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund. In addition, the Act provides emergency spending for the Small Business Administration, Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development.

*On all issues involving the interpretation or application of laws and regulations, plan sponsors should rely on their legal counsel for legal advice.

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