Medicare recipients could lose telehealth benefits

The American Telemedicine Association is spreading word that many Medicare recipients could lose coverage for telehealth benefits due to expected updates to federal urban/rural categorizations. The updates--delineations of Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas in 97 counties across 36 states--would realign populations in certain areas, which could impact "hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries" according to an announcement.

Medicare coverage for telehealth to beneficiaries in metropolitan areas where more than 80 percent of recipients live is not available, according to ATA.

"When it comes to telemedicine, Congress has long overlooked the need for telemedicine services to residents of urban counties, despite the fact that they often suffer similar problems accessing healthcare," ATA CEO Jonathan Linkous said in a statement. "Now, because of a statistical quirk, even more people will lose coverage of these services, reducing access and care.

Instead, Linkous said, Medicare should cover telehealth services for all Medicare beneficiaries, regardless of location. "We call on Congress to ensure that existing beneficiaries will not lose coverage for these services," he said.

Last week, Sens. Amy Kobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) reintroduced a bill aimed at boosting telehealth use to reduce hospital readmissions for Medicare beneficiaries in rural and underserved areas. The bill--the "Fostering Independence Through Technology Act"--calls on the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to develop pilot projects that will provide incentives for home health agencies that choose to use remote patient monitoring and communications technologies.

In a commentary published to in January, Linkous called the government a "lagging partner" for the telehealth industry. While he said he believes that telehealth deployment ultimately will thrive in 2013, he also said that government policies have been the biggest barriers to telehealth deployment for two decades.

To learn more:
- here's the ATA announcement