chronic disease management

One of the challenges to increasing Medicare coverage of telehealth services is amending the statutory language in the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 1395m) to remove geographic and other limitations. The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 requires the Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”) to provide cost estimates of proposed legislation. These CBO scoring reports provide estimates on the spending and revenues associated with legislation, generally over the window of 10 years beyond the effective date of the legislation. Therefore, budgetary effects beyond the 10 year window from legislation (for example, aimed at preventing longer term health costs) would not be taken into account as part of the CBO scoring process. This limitation in the CBO scoring process is seen by proponents of expanding Medicare coverage of telehealth services as a significant inhibitor to passing transformative legislation because the CBO scores reflects the initial uptick in costs to the program from access to services without incorporating the total savings projected over the longer term of an individual’s lifespan.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill (Preventive Health Savings Act, S. 2164) in November of 2017, that would affect how the CBO analyzes legislation related to disease prevention, which could have a positive impact on the CBO scoring expansion of Medicare coverage of telehealth services and affect the ability to move changes through the legislative process. A nearly identical bill (H.R. 2953) was introduced in the House of Representatives in the summer of 2017, the status of which is still pending.

The Preventive Health Savings Act would allow Congress to request a proposal be reviewed by the CBO for budgetary savings from preventive health services, beyond the existing 10 year window from legislation. As proposed in the bill, the CBO would be required to score proposals based on reviewing publicly available scientific studies of preventive health and preventive health services, which the legislation broadly defines as “an action that focuses on the health of the public, individuals and defined populations in order to protect, promote, and maintain health and wellness and prevent disease, disability, and premature death.” The bill also would allow the CBO to review the budget savings for preventive health services extending into an additional two decades beyond the traditional 10 year budget window beyond legislation.

Why is this important to telehealth? This bill, if passed into law, would require CBO to more accurately measure the benefits of preventive care. The U.S. incurs significant, but avoidable, costs related to the treatment of certain diseases and chronic care services, so preventive tools and services are beneficial as a means toward lowering such costs. Telehealth services are well suited to be used as tools that connect patients to their health care providers in order to prevent diseases from occurring or to help maintain health conditions in order to prevent existing conditions from worsening. However, the savings to an individual’s health care costs that are associated with disease prevention would not be measured to their full effect in a shorter term window, as compared to the longer term (i.e., 30 year) window that these bills propose.

Telehealth services offer health care providers the opportunity and the capability to reach broader Medicare beneficiary populations and to serve as disease prevention tools for these populations. Proponents of the bills believe that passage would allow the CBO to more accurately measure the financial savings associated with any legislation that is intended to broaden access by Medicare beneficiaries to telehealth services.

Capitol BuildingAs requested by Congress as part of an appropriations bill signed into law late last year, this month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a report highlighting its e-health and telemedicine efforts.  The report makes for interesting reading, and while there are no significant surprises in the report, it offers a clear snapshot of some of the agency’s thinking regarding virtual care.

The first thing I noted in the report is the agency’s view that “telehealth holds promise as a means of increasing access to care and improving health outcomes.”  This is important because it has not always been clear whether the agency views telehealth quite in the same favorable way as other stakeholders increasingly do.  The other thing I noted was the agency’s view that the various alternative payment methods currently being tested may facilitate expansion of telehealth.

Among other things, the report details some of the policy challenges faced by telehealth stakeholders:

  • Significant variability in telehealth coverage from one payer to another.
  • State licensure requirements for clinicians and the administrative burden such requirements impose on clinicians.
  • Credentialing and privileging.
  • Gaps in access to affordable broadband.

HHS indicates that many reforms are currently being tested or implemented to address these challenges. For example, in the area of reimbursement, the agency notes that it is currently testing more expansive telehealth coverage through its Next Generation ACO Demonstration, and highlights MACRA’s incentives for physicians to use telehealth.  The report references the agency’s new rule that permits the use of telehealth modalities to provide Medicaid home health services.

The report also provides an overview of telehealth-related federal activity including:

  • The number of telehealth grants administered by HRSA and SAMHSA.
  • The establishment of the Federal Telemedicine Working Group (comprised of 26 agencies and departments such as USDA and the FCC) to facilitate telehealth education and information sharing.
  • ONC developing an inventory of federal telehealth activities.
  • AHRQ providing an evidence map of the available research regarding telehealth.
  • The continued great telehealth work being done within the VA and reasons why that model may not be scalable.

Overall, the report is an illuminating but relatively unsurprising take on agency thinking.  In particular, two nuggets stood out. First, the agency appears to view chronic disease management as a particularly good fit for telehealth.  In recounting that almost half of all adults have at least one chronic illness and that chronic disease accounts for 75 percent of all health expenditures, the report concludes that telehealth “appears to hold particular promise for chronic disease management.” It goes to reason that any expansion of telehealth under Medicare will probably first focus on chronic disease management. Second, HHS signaled the importance of Medicare Advantage in any telehealth expansion effort, by including a proposal in the President’s budget request for FY 2017 to expand the ability of MA organizations to provide telehealth by eliminating otherwise applicable Part B requirements that certain services be provided only in-person.