On March 17, 2022, the HHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a new report examining the use of telehealth services in Medicare during the first year of the pandemic, declaring that telehealth was critical during this time period for Medicare beneficiaries. The report also looks at the growth of telehealth services, the types of telehealth services most commonly used, and the extent to which beneficiaries also used in-person services.
The Alliance is thrilled to see this publication and the data contained within, as understanding the use of telehealth in Medicare during the first year of the pandemic will help inform how the temporary extension of telehealth flexibilities increased access to care and can inform future decisions about permanent telehealth policy reform.
Below, please find a summary with key findings from this study:
Purpose of the Study: This data brief provides insight into the use of telehealth in both Medicare fee-for-service and Medicare Advantage during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, from March 2020 through February 2021. The report looks at the growth of telehealth services, the extent to which beneficiaries also used in-person services, and the types of telehealth services most commonly used. It is a companion to a report that examines the characteristics of beneficiaries who used telehealth during the pandemic. This information can help CMS, Congress, and other stakeholders make decisions about how telehealth can be best used to meet the needs of beneficiaries in the future.
Bottom Line: Telehealth was critical for providing services to Medicare beneficiaries during the first year of the pandemic. Beneficiaries’ use of telehealth during the pandemic also demonstrates the long-term potential of telehealth to increase access to health care for beneficiaries. Further, it shows that beneficiaries particularly benefited from the ability to use telehealth for certain services, such as behavioral health services. These findings are important for CMS, Congress, and other stakeholders to take into account as they consider making changes to telehealth in Medicare. For example, CMS could use these findings to inform changes to the services that are allowed via telehealth on a permanent basis.
Other Key Findings:
- Over 28 million Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth during the first year of the pandemic, or more than 2 in 5 Medicare beneficiaries. Prior to the pandemic, less than one percent of Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth (or around 341,000 beneficiaries).
- Medicare beneficiaries used 114.4 million telehealth services from March 2020 through February 2021. In total, beneficiaries used 88 times more telehealth services during the first year of the pandemic than they used in the prior year, when beneficiaries used 1.3 million telehealth services.
- Beneficiaries’ use of telehealth peaked at the beginning of the pandemic and remained high through early 2021. Overall, beneficiaries used telehealth to receive 12% of their services during the first year of the pandemic.
- Despite a large increase in the use of telehealth, beneficiaries used fewer services overall (20% fewer services, or 990 million total) during the first year of the pandemic than they did in the prior year. Beneficiaries’ use of telehealth only partially filled the gap left by a decrease in in-person services during the pandemic.
- Beneficiaries most commonly used telehealth for office visits, which accounted for just under half of all telehealth services (54.5 million) used during the first year of the pandemic. Beneficiaries also used telehealth for virtual care services (34 million), behavioral health services (14.1 million), nursing home visits (3.3 million), and preventive services (2.4 million), among others.
- Beneficiaries used telehealth for a larger share of their behavioral health services compared to their use of telehealth for other services. Specifically, beneficiaries used telehealth for 43% of behavioral health services, whereas they used telehealth for 13% of office visits they received during the first year of the pandemic.
- Additionally, 84% of beneficiaries who used telehealth during the pandemic received telehealth services only from providers with whom they had an established relationship. These beneficiaries received an in-person service from a provider an average of four months prior to their first telehealth service.
- Beneficiaries enrolled in Medicare Advantage were more likely to use telehealth than those in Medicare fee-for-service. In total, 49% of beneficiaries enrolled in MA used telehealth, compared to 38% of those enrolled in Medicare fee-for-service. Prior to the pandemic, MA had greater flexibility to provide telehealth services to beneficiaries.