In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) created separate payments for audio-only telephone evaluation and management (E/M) services. E/M billing codes apply to medical services related to evaluating and managing a patient, such as, hospital visits, preventive services, and office visits. Coding for E/M services can be complicated because many variables are involved in selecting the proper code. For example, the type and complexity of history, examination, and decision making, as well as time spent with the patient are often factors to be considered. Audio-only telephone E/M services were not previously covered by Medicare under the physician fee schedule (PFS). However, beginning with the March 2020 Interim Final Rule with Comment (IFC), CMS found these types of visits to be clinically appropriate and began to cover certain audio-only codes. CMS further expanded the list of covered audio-only codes in the April 2020 IFC.
CMS soon found that audio-only health services became far more popular than CMS expected, and many beneficiaries were not using video technology to communicate from their homes. Since the new E/M codes were established, providers were seeing beneficiaries for more complex evaluation and management services using audio-only technology, when they would normally utilize telehealth video or in-person visits to evaluate the patient. According to CMS, the intensity and complexity of providing an audio-only visit to a beneficiary during the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 PHE was not properly valued as established in the March 2020 IFC. This was especially true when considering these audio-only services were often being used as a complete substitute for office/outpatient Medicare video telehealth visits. Therefore, CMS established new RVUs based on E/M codes in existence prior to the PHE and the time requirements necessary for telephone service-related codes. Because these audio-only visits were being used in replacement of office/outpatient E/M visits, they should be considered telehealth services and added to the Medicare telehealth service list while the PHE is ongoing.
In the CY 2021 PFS proposed rule, CMS elected not to continue covering the audio-only codes when the PHE ends. This is because, outside the circumstances of the COVID-19 PHE, telehealth services generally must be provided using interactive, two-way audio and video technology. Commenters on the proposed rule broadly supported maintaining payment for audio-only provided services. Commenters stated that many beneficiaries may not have access to two-way audio and video technology and that continuing to pay for these E/M services will help vulnerable populations and those with less access to quality healthcare. However, CMS declined to finalize payment of these E/M codes beyond the PHE. The Social Security Act requires telehealth services to be furnished using a telecommunications system. CMS maintains that there is a longstanding policy of interpreting “telecommunications system” to include technology that allows the telehealth visit to be analogous to an in-person visit. Outside the COVID-19 PHE, CMS continues to believe that the longstanding interpretation of telecommunications system excludes the use of audio-only technology for Medicare telehealth services. The PHE declaration must be renewed in 90-day increments and is currently slated to end April 20, 2021. However, HHS and the Biden administration have signaled that they are likely to repeatedly renew the PHE through at least the end of 2021, thereby allowing Medicare telehealth waivers to continue until the end of the year.
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