During the COVID-19 public health emergency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) waived many of the restrictions that limited Medicare coverage for healthcare services for telemedicine and allowed for much greater use of these services. Among these was the introduction of Medicare coverage for several audio-only services, whereas Medicare coverage had previously only extended to telemedicine services provided by interactive two-way audio/video communication. However, these actions were only temporary and will end when the declaration of a public health emergency ends.
Due to the tremendous value that audio-only telemedicine has provided to the healthcare system, providers, and Medicare beneficiaries, there have been calls for the temporary expansion of telemedicine to be made permanent. While CMS has asserted that large-scale changes to the Medicare program must come from Congress, CMS recently released the proposed 2022 Physician Fee Schedule which, among many other proposals, would retain Medicare coverage for some audio-only services.
Specifically, CMS would permit the use of audio-only communications technology for mental health telehealth services under certain conditions when the services are provided to beneficiaries located in their home. Under the CMS proposal, coverage would be limited to the diagnosis, evaluation, or treatment of mental health disorders in established patients where the originating site is the patient’s home. CMS would retain the requirement that an in-person item or service must be furnished within six months of such a mental health telehealth service. Further, CMS would require that the provider has the technical capability at the time of the service to use an interactive telecommunications system that includes video, but conducts the visit via audio-only because the beneficiary is unable to use, does not wish to use, or does not have access to two-way, audio/video technology. CMS states its goal is to allow audio-only services only where no service would otherwise occur.