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telehealth is used by 2 in 5 Medicare beneficiaries since the pandemic

Last month, the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a study examining how Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

By analyzing Medicare service fee claims data and Medicare Advantage meeting data from March 1, 2020 to February 28, 2021, along with data for the same period of the year. previous year, the agency calculated the total number of services used by telehealth and face-to-face, as well as the types of services used.

“Telehealth was instrumental in providing services to Medicare beneficiaries during the first year of the pandemic,” the report says. “The use of telehealth by beneficiaries during the pandemic also demonstrates the long-term potential of telehealth to increase access to health care.”

Healthcare IT News met with OIG analyst John Gordon to discuss the study’s findings and how the information found by the organization can help decision makers shape future policies. telehealth.

Q. What forced the team to study the use of telehealth by the beneficiaries?

A. This report is part of an extensive work that our organization is doing in the field of telehealth. It is part of a series that studies the use of telehealth during the first year of the pandemic. It will be accompanied by two reports that are expected to be published in the coming months: one on the characteristics of beneficiaries who use telehealth and Medicare, the other on the risks to the integrity of the program associated with the use of telehealth.

With the temporary flexibilities of HHS and the Medicare and Medicaid Service Centers, as well as the impact of the pandemic on telehealth use, we really wanted to take a deep dive and see, “Okay, how many beneficiaries “What does it look like compared to your use of equivalent face-to-face services? And how has your use of telehealth changed during this first year of the pandemic compared to the previous year?”

So that’s really what drove us to do this job.

Q. What were some of the top-level findings?

A. More than 28 million Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth during the first year of the pandemic. That was more than two in five Medicare beneficiaries enrolled.

Beneficiaries used 88 times more telehealth services during the first year of the pandemic than those who used the previous year.

And in general, the beneficiaries used telehealth to receive 12% of their services during the first year of the pandemic.

In terms of the types of services used by the beneficiaries, the beneficiaries used telehealth more frequently for office visits, which accounted for just under half of all telehealth services during the first year of the year. pandemic.

However, it was the use of telehealth by beneficiaries for behavioral health services that stood out. And that was because the beneficiaries used telehealth for a larger share of their behavioral health services, compared to their use of telehealth for other services.

Q. Can you assess why you think behavioral care has become one of the main use cases of telehealth?

A. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for mental health and substance use disorder treatment services across the country. And it is clear that many people, including Medicare beneficiaries, are struggling. Thus, as part of our study, we looked at how Medicare beneficiaries accessed mental health and substance use disorder services during the first year of the pandemic. And, as I mentioned earlier, we found that beneficiaries received more than 40% of all behavioral health services through telehealth.

This was much more than for other services. For example, only 13% of office visits were telehealth.

The way we see it is that these data show that telehealth can serve as an important tool in addressing the mental health needs of Medicare beneficiaries. So we were very surprised by this information, as it was related to behavioral health and telehealth when we were analyzing the data.

Q. How did audio-only services come into play?

A. We found that audio-only services played an important role during the first year of the pandemic, especially when beneficiaries may encounter barriers to receiving face-to-face care. In fact, a quarter of all telehealth services used during the first year of the pandemic were audio-only services.

However, we would like to point out that, as policy makers consider the future of audio-only services, it is really important to delve deeper into these particular services, including usage patterns, their impacts on the quality of care, and the risks associated with the integrity of the program.

Q. What broader conclusions could you draw from this data on the general population?

A. Because we’re only looking at Medicare beneficiaries here, it’s hard to extrapolate to the wider American population. But what I can say are some of our conclusions, which are that we believe that the use of telehealth during the pandemic shows its long-term potential to increase access to health care, especially for health care services. behavioral health we just discussed.

And we really hope that decision makers, such as Congress and the Medicare and Medicaid Service Centers, will carefully consider both the data we present in our report and other data available when making decisions about the future of telehealth. politics.

Q. Was there anything that surprised you in the report?

A. That’s a good question. I think I was surprised to see the difference in the overall proportion of people who use behavioral health through telehealth versus the use of telehealth for other services. I know there are many outstanding questions about how telehealth could replace face-to-face care, how it could not replace face-to-face care, and so on.

It seemed very remarkable to me that more than 40% of all beneficiaries use telehealth to receive their behavioral medical care. While we present that 12% of all health services used by beneficiaries during the first year of the pandemic, it was through telehealth.

Thus, in general, most care was maintained in person, but for behavioral health services, it was very different. So I would say it was something that surprised me from the data.

Q. Are there any other elements of the report that you find especially noteworthy?

A. One aspect of the report that we really like to be able to do is that it includes the use of telehealth by beneficiaries in both the Medicare and Medicare Advantage service rate. So when we’re presenting this information, it’s really measuring the use of telehealth among the entire Medicare population, rather than just one segment. We are very excited to be able to include these totals for the entire medical population.

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