CMS Trumpets Telehealth Potential in Skilled Nursing and Long-Term Care

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued yet another sign of support for expanding the use of telehealth services in skilled nursing facilities, pointing to a variety of studies that show the technology can save the government money.

Writing in a mandated report to Congress released earlier this month, CMS highlighted multiple areas of potential for telehealth technology in nursing homes — a service that Medicare currently only covers for residents at rural skilled nursing facilities.

“Each year, hospital readmissions among skilled nursing facility patients cost Medicare more than $4 billion, but there is emerging evidence that shows that providing telehealth services to Medicare beneficiaries in long-term care facilities or at home may decrease hospitalizations and readmissions and enable more beneficiaries to remain in the community,” CMS noted in its report.

The federal agency pointed to research showing that telehealth services provided by physicians during off hours — specifically weeknights and weekend days — could lead to 15 fewer rehospitalizations per year for specific nursing homes, with an average annual savings to Medicare of $151,000 per facility. In addition, CMS noted research suggesting that remote psychotherapy services often achieve the same outcomes as face-to-face interventions for mental health issues such as depression.

“Furthermore, research on telepsychiatry utilization in rural nursing homes found cost savings for the psychiatrist, nursing homes, and patients, in addition to enthusiastic support from patients, family members, and nursing home personnel,” CMS wrote.

Despite the current restrictions on Medicare telehealth coverage in nursing homes — which accounted for just 3.4% of total remote care services between 2014 and 2016 — there has been explosive growth in the nursing space: The 9,491 instances of telehealth codes for nursing homes recorded in 2016 represented a 186.5% gain from 2014, CMS observed.

The November report marks the most recent sign that the federal government is interested in expanding the availability of telemedicine services under Medicare. CMS last month issued a proposed rule that would define telehealth as a basic benefit for Medicare Advantage plans starting in calendar 2020, allowing insurers to use government dollars to reimburse for such interventions regardless of a building’s location. In addition, a bill before Congress — the RUSH Act — would allow Medicare to cover emergency telemedicine services in nursing homes.

“The big piece here is that the dam has been broken. Other bills can be introduced now. Congress is bullish on telemedicine — Congress and CMS as well,” Timothy Peck, co-founder and CEO of telehealth provider Call9, told Skilled Nursing News earlier this month. “This is the beginning of a lot of reform to happen. CMS has shown, and this administration has shown, that it’s willing and wanting to do that.”

Written by Alex Spanko

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Alex Spanko
Alex covers the long-term health care industry for Aging Media Network, with a specific interest in the intersection of finance and policy. Outside of work, he reads nonfiction, experiments in the kitchen, enjoys pretty much any type of whiskey or scotch, and yells at Mets games — often all at the same time.

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