These telehealth trends are likely here to stay

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While Medicare and other insurers fueled the explosion of telehealth over the past year by paying the same rates as for in-person visits, many are expected to push for lower prices when the federally designated public health crisis ends. At the same time, physicians and hospitals are looking to maintain income.

“Payers are unlikely to give providers carte blanche,” said Dr. Hoangmai Pham, a former senior medical official at health insurance giant Anthem. But Pham noted insurers could reward physicians and hospitals that take greater responsibility for their patients’ overall health with higher rates for telehealth. “There’s an opportunity here,” she said.

For now, tens of millions of Americans have gotten used to meeting their doctor on a laptop or smartphone, and pressure is building on the federal and state governments to loosen rules to preserve virtual visits after the health crisis ends.

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“You don’t have to leave work to go to the doctor,” she said. “I can just step into the break room for a few minutes and use my phone. … I love it.”

In a nationwide poll last year, 8 in 10 Americans who had used telehealth said they “liked it” or “loved it.” Nearly the same share said they were likely to continue using it after the pandemic, according to the survey by the Harris Poll.

Just a year ago, telehealth, or telemedicine, as it’s also called, was largely a curiosity. Patient and physician wariness and strict rules about how doctors could bill had squelched widespread use.

Fearing fraud and overuse, the federal government tightly restricted the kind of video and audio visits that could be billed to Medicare, limiting use mainly to rural areas and to visits in which a doctor was in an office or hospital, rather than working remotely.

“There was a fear that if there was the slightest opening in the Medicare payment system, people would find a way to abuse it,” said Sean Cavanaugh, who oversaw Medicare during the Obama administration.