Medicare beneficiaries can now speak to their doctor from home without having to visit a physician’s office, clinic or hospital for the duration of the coronavirus public health emergency. Medicare’s new telehealth benefit temporarily allows seniors to obtain health advice and services without traveling to a medical facility.
Here’s how Medicare beneficiaries can talk to a doctor remotely:
- A telehealth visit allows you to speak with your doctor over the phone.
- E-visits are communications with a medical provider via an online patient portal.
- Virtual check-ins are brief correspondence with an existing medical provider to see if in-person services are necessary.
What Is Telehealth?
A telehealth visit allows you to talk with your doctor over the phone instead of visiting a medical facility. Medicare will cover telehealth visits with doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists and licensed clinical social workers beginning March 6, 2020. Medicare beneficiaries will be able to receive services including common office visits, mental health counseling and some types of preventive health screenings from home.
Telehealth visits prevent Medicare beneficiaries from unnecessarily entering a health care facility when services can be effectively provided remotely. For example, a Medicare beneficiary could use a telehealth visit to obtain a prescription refill without leaving home.
“The current situation is creating an eminent need for telehealth, both to free up our health care system’s resources to attend to COVID-19 queries and cases, but also to keep safe the many older Americans living with multiple chronic conditions away from harm,” says Michael Wolf, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Applied Health Research on Aging at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Your physician knows best whether your health can best be attended to by a telehealth visit, or if it is essential that you come in person.”
When to Initiate a Medicare Telehealth Visit
Many health care providers are delaying or rescheduling nonessential office visits in order to provide services for seriously ill patients. Call your provider before coming in for a routine office visit to see if your concern can be handled remotely.
“The best person to determine whether a visit is routine or nonessential is their physician,” says Zaldy S. Tan, a medical doctor and associate chief of the UCLA division of geriatric medicine. “If they are going in primarily for a routine visit for a medication refill, determine whether that could be done telephonically or online. If the person is having symptoms that need attention, they should also call ahead of time. Only the provider will be able to know whether their need could be accomplished with telephone visits or the person needs to be seen in person.”
How to Prepare for a Medicare Telehealth Visit
Before your telehealth visit begins, collect all the information you will need to share with your health care provider, perhaps including your medical records and current medications. Consider writing down your symptoms and other important information you want to share, and be prepared to answer questions.
“The regular clinician that they see may not be available and they may have to be seen by a covering physician, and they should not assume that the person covering knows everything about them medically,” Tan says. “They should have their medications within arm’s reach – an updated medication list if not the bottles that they actually take.”
If your symptoms are serious, you may be asked to travel to a medical facility. “It’s quite possible that after a telephone visit the health professional may judge that the person needs to come in for a physical examination,” Tan says. “They may need to listen to a patient’s lungs or take X-rays or blood work.”
How Much Does a Medicare Telehealth Visit Cost?
Telehealth visits will be billed at the same rate as typical office visits, and Medicare patients may need to pay coinsurance and a deductible. “Medicare covers all types of telehealth services under Part B, so beneficiaries in traditional Medicare who use these benefits are subject to the Part B deductible of $198 in 2020 and 20% coinsurance,” says Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the Program on Medicare Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. However, individual providers may elect to reduce or waive the cost-sharing requirements for telehealth visits.
Other Ways to Communicate With Your Doctor From Home
Medicare Part B pays for e-visits, which are communications with an existing medical provider via an online patient portal. Medicare beneficiaries are also eligible for a virtual check-in, which is a brief five- to 10-minute correspondence with an existing medical provider to see if in-person services are needed.
Medicare Telehealth Coverage Is Temporary
Medicare is temporarily covering telehealth services in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “These new flexibilities with regard to coverage of telehealth services for all beneficiaries in traditional Medicare are only available on a time-limited basis for the duration of the emergency,” Cubanski says. In the past, Medicare covered telehealth services only under very specific circumstances, such as for beneficiaries who lived in rural areas.