Millions of Medicare patients kept telehealth habit post-vaccines

Tanya Albert Henry , Contributing News Writer

Despite mask mandates expiring in states that had the strictest laws and the majority of Americans less conscious about practicing physical distancing, about 4 million Medicare patients received medical care through telehealth in each of the first two quarters in 2022, according to data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians

After fighting for physicians during the pandemic, the AMA is taking on the next extraordinary challenge: Renewing the nation’s commitment to physicians.

Nearly 4.2 million Medicare patients accessed care through telehealth in the first quarter of 2022, 19% of the more than 22 million telehealth eligible Medicare patients. In the second quarter, nearly 3.4 million Medicare patients used telehealth services. That equates to 15% of the nearly 22.7 million patients who were eligible.

The CMS “Medicare Telehealth Trends Report” includes data from Medicare patients who used services between Jan. 1, 2020, and June 30, 2022.

Supporting telehealth is an essential component of the AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians.

Telehealth is critical to the future of health care, which is why the AMA continues to lead the charge to aggressively expand telehealth policy, research and resources to ensure physician practice sustainability and fair payment.

Here are some other insights from the data, which comes from Medicare fee-for-service Part B claims data and Medicare enrollment information and figures from the first half of 2022.

Those with disabilities were most likely to use telehealth services. During the first quarter, 34% of Medicare patients eligible for the program because they have a disability used a telehealth service. The figures were 26% for those eligible because of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) and 17% among those eligible for Medicare because of their age.

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Patients in urban areas used telehealth more often than those in rural areas. In the first quarter, 20% of Medicare patients in urban areas used telehealth services, while 15% of rural patients did. The percentage gap was similar in the second quarter, with 16% of urban patients and 11% of rural patients accessing care through telehealth.

Women were slightly more likely than men to use telehealth. First quarter numbers show 20% of women had used a telehealth service, versus 17% of men. During the second quarter, 16% of women and 14% of men used a telehealth service.

Telehealth use varied by race and ethnicity. Among Hispanic Medicare patients, 26% used telehealth services in the first quarter, the CMS report says. The rate was 25% among Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, 21% among American Indians or Alaskan Natives, 21% among African Americans and 18% among white patients. Trends were similar in the second quarter.

Younger Medicare patients used telehealth more commonly than older patients. Among patients under 65, 34% accessed care through telehealth in the first quarter. That compares with 18% among those 65–74 years old, 16% among patients 75 or older.

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Funding extended

The 2020 pandemic brought telehealth to patients and physician offices nationwide as it became a way to access care safely. It was able to happen in large part because outdated Medicare payment laws were temporarily changed so that physicians and other health professionals received payment for telehealth services, services that were reimbursed in very few circumstances prior to that.

In December, Congress extended telehealth payment flexibilities for two years as physicians and other champions of telehealth work to make it a more permanent part of the health care landscape. The extension was one of several important provisions that the AMA supported  in the $1.7 trillion bipartisan omnibus bill.