- CMS issued a another round of sweeping regulatory rollbacks Thursday that will temporarily change how some providers care for patients and get compensated during the ongoing pandemic.
- Major changes are related to COVID-19 testing for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. A written practitioner’s order is no longer needed for diagnostic testing for Medicare payment purposes. The agency also said it will cover serology, or antibody testing, including certain FDA-authorized tests that patients self-collect at home.
- Practitioners such as therapists previously restricted from providing telehealth services for reimbursement can now do so, and CMS is also upping payments for telephone-only telehealth visits. Accountable care organizations also scored a major win in the Thursday rule drop, with CMS pledging they wouldn't be dinged financially for lower-than-expected health outcomes in their patient populations from COVID-19.
The new rules come out of the recent public health emergency declaration, building on others announced in late March and early April. This round of changes, which take effect immediately, focuses on expanding testing capacity to help reopen the U.S. economy, according to CMS, along with delivering expanded care to seniors.
Major provider lobbies the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association praised the changes, noting that Medicare patients have been canceling needed medical appointments because of physical distancing and transportation challenges.
The Trump administration, which allowed traditional Medicare to temporarily cover telehealth in March, continues to expand virtual care access. CMS is expanding the types of specialists allowed to provide telehealth services for reimbursement to include physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists and others. In the past, only doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certain others could do so.
Earlier changes included waiving the video requirement for telehealth patients without access to interactive audio-video technology – particularly those in rural areas. CMS is increasing payments for telephone visits from a range of about $14-$41 to about $46-$110, according to the release.
The rollbacks are 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,” the AMA said.
Michael Abrams, managing partner of Numerof & Associates, a healthcare consulting firm, said the current, rapid adoption of telehealth is an experiment, and depending on the results, waivers could eventually become permanent.
"Once you increase pricing, you almost never roll it back," Abrams said. "If this new pricing on telehealth visits makes it more attractive, attractive enough to substitute telehealth for in-office visits, that not only lowers the cost of care, but makes it very much more accessible, particularly for those whose ability to see a physician is limited."
In a victory for ACOs, CMS said the value-based organizations wouldn't incur any financial penalties because of COVID-19 testing and treatment for their patient populations. Roughly 60% of ACOs said previously they were likely to drop out of their risk-based model to avoid potential losses, according to the National Association of ACOs.
CMS is also allowing ACOs to remain at the same level of risk for another year, instead of bumping them up to the next risk level. NAACOs said it was "appreciative" of the changes in a statement, though they asked for additional relief for providers in two-sided risk arrangements.
Other loosened restrictions include those on who can administer COVID-19 diagnostic tests for payment to include any healthcare professional authorized to do so under state law, including pharmacists. Medicare and Medicaid recipients can now get tested at parking lot sites operated by pharmacies and other entities for reimbursement.
Outpatient hospital services such as wound care, drug administration, and behavioral health services can now be delivered in temporary expansion locations, including parking lot tents, converted hotels or patients’ homes for reimbursement, so long as they’re temporarily designated as part of a hospital.
Hospital outpatient departments that relocate off-campus are paid at lower rates under current law, but CMS is making a temporary exception to continue paying those physicians at their standard rates.
The agency will also pay for certain partial hospitalization services – that is, individual psychotherapy, patient education, and group psychotherapy – that are delivered in temporary expansion locations, including patient homes.
CMS is also now requiring nursing homes to inform residents, their families, and representatives of COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities.