Less Than 1% of Medicare Beneficiaries Use Telemedicine Services

June 23, 2015 in News

Nearly two decades after the introduction of telemedicine, few Medicare beneficiaries use the technology, largely because of concerns about its costs, Kaiser Health News/Washington Post reports.

Medicare’s coverage for telemedicine only applies in certain rural areas and when the beneficiary is already at a clinic, eliminating the convenience of such services.

According to KHN/Post, lawmakers have maintained tight limits on telemedicine services under Medicare because of concerns that they could increase program spending. Those concerns are bolstered by the Congressional Budget Office and other analysts, who have predicted that allowing beneficiaries access to physicians via telemedicine would lead them to use more services.

According to KHN/Post, less than 1% of beneficiaries use telemedicine, and just two Medicare Advantage insurers — which are not subject to Medicare’s tight telemedicine rules — cover such visits. Medicare paid about $5 million for telemedicine services in 2012, only a tiny fraction of its $466 billion in total spending.

Debate Over Telemedicine

The American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and other health experts have called on Congress to expand the use of telemedicine in Medicare.

Some experts say that the service could help elderly U.S. residents keep follow-up appointments that might be missed because of a lack of transportation.

However, some lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to add telemedicine provisions to laws redefining Medicare doctor payment rules and streamlining drug approval processes.

Robert Wergin, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said telemedicine can help patients who are disabled or do not have easy access to a physician office. He said, “We see the potential for it … to improve quality and lower costs.”

Mia Finkelston, a family physician who works with the telemedicine technology firm American Well, said doctors who provide telemedicine services are aware of when an in-person visit is necessary. Finkelston said, “Our intent is not to replace their primary care physician, but to augment their care” (Galewitz, KHN/Post, 6/22).

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