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Health Agencies Update
January 25, 2022

Increased Use of Medicare Telehealth During the Pandemic

JAMA. 2022;327(4):313. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.23332

Telehealth visits for Medicare beneficiaries have increased significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to a report from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Medicare beneficiaries are making millions more telehealth visits since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to a recent report.

iStock.com/RichLegg

Researchers in HHS' Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation reviewed 2019 and 2020 Medicare health care utilization trends. The authors found that overall Medicare Part B visits—when accounting for both in-person and telehealth—decreased from 1.1 billion in 2019 to approximately 989 million in 2020. However, 2020 telehealth visits increased to 52.7 million from approximately 840 000 in 2019. Ninety-two percent of telehealth visits occurred in beneficiaries’ homes, which generally wasn’t permitted before the pandemic.

To reduce COVID-19 exposure in health care environments, the US Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) authorized waivers in March 2020 that expanded telehealth services for Medicare beneficiaries. These waivers allowed for telehealth in-home visits, services in urban areas, and audio-only interaction for some services.

HHS’ report noted that in 2020, a greater proportion of beneficiaries in urban than rural areas used telehealth services. Whereas Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut were among states with the highest use of telehealth services in 2020, those with the lowest use included Tennessee, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, and Wyoming. White Medicare beneficiaries were more likely to use telehealth services than Black beneficiaries.

Among clinicians, behavioral health specialists had the highest increase in telehealth visits. In 2019, only 1% of visits to behavioral health specialists were telehealth; in 2020, the percentage jumped to 38.1%. By the end of 2020, telehealth visits to behavioral specialists were as common as in-person visits.

“This report provides valuable insights into telehealth usage during the pandemic,” CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, MPP, said in a statement. “CMS will use these insights—along with input from people with Medicare and providers across the country—to inform further Medicare telehealth policies.”

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