Telehealth was instrumental in helping people maintain their medical services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although not all healthcare services can be provided remotely, many, including therapy, are effective through video calls. Medicare patients who benefited from telehealth in recent months have felt concerned about the future of their virtual visits. Before emergency changes to Medicare’s billing guidelines, most of these telehealth services were not covered. Fortunately, Medicare’s coverage has been permanently expanded, and it appears likely that the program will grow to include even more virtual services in the near future.
If you’re a Medicare beneficiary, you should understand how coverage has changed this year and how the permanent expansion of virtual services may affect you.
Recent Changes in Medicare Telehealth Coverage
As the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, telehealth rapidly expanded across the country. To promote social distancing and protect patients and providers, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) passed temporary measures to allow telehealth Medicare services that were previously not approved.
Before these changes, virtual medical appointments were only approved for patients in remote or rural areas, which includes just 20 percent of Medicare beneficiaries. In most cases, these patients also had to travel to a healthcare facility called an originating site. There, they would speak with their providers through a telecommunication platform.
During the pandemic, all beneficiaries gained access to virtual services, not just those in rural areas. The CMS added new services that previously could not be provided to any patients virtually. Patients can receive services from home, too, instead of from an originating site. Additionally, patients don’t need an existing relationship with the provider to receive virtual services. They can have first-time visits with a medical professional via telehealth. There was a fairly seamless transition from in-person to virtual services in most healthcare fields. As patients and professionals adjusted to telehealth, many noticed other benefits to this style of healthcare. Although telehealth isn’t the perfect solution for everyone, it can be convenient, comfortable, and flexible.
Announcement of Permanent Medicare Changes
In early December, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released the Physician Fee Schedule, which is the list of fees Medicare uses to reimburse medical professionals who see patients under this healthcare plan. The schedule is updated and released annually, and it determines what services professionals can offer to Medicare patients.
According to the recent announcement from the CMS, many of the telehealth services that were added during the pandemic will now be on the fee schedule permanently. The CMS is evaluating other services that they may add at a later date as well.
These permanent changes apply to individuals in rural or remote areas. Unfortunately, after the end of the pandemic, this telehealth expansion does not include those who live outside of these regions. However, the CMS may update and expand the program after more research.
What This Means for Senior Mental Health Services
Virtual counseling sessions became far more accessible with the temporary Medicare changes during the pandemic. Regardless of your location, you can connect with a counselor via telehealth without leaving home as long as you have access to a device with a camera and microphone.
The Medicare expansion covers almost all mental health services, including psychological testing, individual counseling, and group therapy. Some patients maintained their previous services, and others received mental health services for the first time during the pandemic.
Most of the mental health services included in the temporary expansion have also been listed in the permanent expansion. The permanent changes apply only to rural patients, so Medicare recipients outside of rural areas may not be able to continue with virtual therapy after the public health emergency ends. The benefits of telehealth expansion are clear, though, so providers are optimistic that more change will come in the future.
For Medicare beneficiaries who do live in the qualified remote areas, you may have the choice of continuing with virtual sessions or resuming in-person services. Your options will depend on what your therapist offers. When it’s safe to resume in-person meetings, your counselor may stop providing virtual sessions. However, many counselors plan to offer both in-person and virtual visits in a hybrid model.
It’s unclear whether the pandemic will change the course of telehealth in the long-run, but it looks likely that virtual visits are here to stay in the mental health field. Adam Haim, an expert with the National Institute on Mental Health, says he expects a hybrid model to become the norm based on the benefits both patients and providers have reported.
Benefits of Telehealth Therapy for Seniors
Telehealth has been key in slowing the spread of the pandemic, but it has other benefits as well. For many seniors, the convenience is ideal. Your counseling session takes less time out of your day because you don’t have to commute to the appointment. You don’t have to arranging transportation, either.
Opting for virtual sessions massively expands your search range for therapists as well. You’re no longer limited to professionals in your immediate area. Sometimes, patients have to work with multiple therapists before finding the right fit, and you have far more options with telehealth.
Many people report feeling more at ease at home, too. Counseling is a vulnerable experience, and it may be easier to speak openly with your therapist when you’re in the privacy of your own home. You don’t have to worry about being overheard or running into someone you know in the waiting room. All you have to do is make yourself comfortable at home and log onto the telecommunications platform.
It’s important to note that virtual counseling services were not invented this year. Some therapists have been using videoconferencing tools to connect with patients for decades. The benefits are well-documented both by research reviews and by personal accounts. For most patients, outcomes are similar with virtual and in-person sessions. In some cases, virtual sessions even provide better outcomes.
The CMS has announced that they’re studying the Medicare telehealth services provided during 2020 and that they will use this information to find new opportunities for virtual services. All Medicare beneficiaries who switched to telehealth during the pandemic will continue to receive these services into 2021 while the public health emergency is still in effect. Then, rural beneficiaries will continue to be covered by these expanded services. We can expect more changes in the approved services and approved populations in the next few years, though, as administrators and healthcare experts document the benefits of telehealth expansion.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling offers therapy for older adults who are experiencing depression, anxiety, grief, stress, and a number of other concerns. To learn more about our services or to connect with a counselor, contact us today.