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CMS hikes telephone visit payments during pandemic


Physicians who are conducting telephone visits during the COVID-19 pandemic will be paid at a higher rate, more closely aligning the rates with payments for face-to-face visits.

On April 30, officials at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced the temporary telephone visit rate change and expanded the scope of services that are eligible telephone visits to include many behavioral health and patient education services.

Rates for telephone visits will jump from $14-$41 per visit to about $46-$110. The pay increase is retroactive to March 1, 2020.

The move was welcomed by the American College of Physicians, but the organization said more needs to be done in order help maintain the financial stability of physician practices.

“ACP has repeatedly requested this change from CMS as the country has been dealing with the COVID-19 national emergency, and we are heartened that they have heard our concerns,” ACP President Jacqueline Fincher, MD, said in a statement. “More still needs to be done to ensure that physician practices are able to remain operational and care for their patients, but this change in payment policy addresses one of the biggest issues facing physicians as they struggle to make up for lost revenue and provide appropriate care to patients.”

CMS also is expanding payment availability for audio-only telemedicine services by waiving the video requirement for certain evaluation and management services. The move is aimed at reaching Medicare beneficiaries who may not have access to video technology or choose not to use it.

“This is a major victory for medicine that will enable physicians to care for their patients, especially their elderly patients with chronic conditions who may not have access to audio-visual technology or high-speed Internet,” Patrice Harris, MD, president of the American Medical Association, said in a statement. “This change will help patients address their health challenges that existed before COVID-19.”

Shawn Martin, senior vice president at the American Academy of Family Physicians, said his group is pleased to see CMS roll out this change and noted that it is especially important for patients with underlying health conditions. “This is the only connectivity they may have with a health care system for their ongoing health care needs.”

Samuel Jones, MD, chair of the Health Affairs Committee at the American College of Cardiology, highlighted the expansion and coverage of audio-only telemedicine appointments as a huge plus for patient access.*

“There was a huge hunger to say, ‘Can we just have improvement in the reimbursement for telephone, which is providing a good service, our patients our asking for it,’ and we were able to get that,” Dr. Jones said in an interview. “It really was, I think, a good thing for patient care.”

Dr. Jones also suggested that the temporary policy be extended after the COVID-19 crisis is over.

“Telemedicine is here to stay,” he said. “But if all of these relaxations suddenly go away with a snap of the finger, or if the reimbursement [is lowered], if all that changes as soon as this emergency declaration is over, we are going to have a hard time.”

The pay increase for telephone services was part of a broader package of increased regulatory flexibility CMS rolled out, including expanding the types of providers who can order a COVID-19 test.

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