This is the first of two blogs about the telemedicine provisions in the draft CY2019 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule published last week by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). I’ve summarized below what CMS is proposing, and I will follow up with some thoughts about the implications for telehealth coverage and adoption.

Each year, the Physician Fee Schedule addresses telemedicine. The annual rulemaking process is the mechanism by which CMS adds codes to the list of “telehealth services” allowed in Medicare, and also determines what is allowable for remote care.

But this year’s rule was different. It went beyond routine coding changes and clearly showed that CMS is committed to bringing virtual care to seniors. CMS used incredible creativity to get around some very restrictive statutory provisions. CMS Administrator Seema Verma expressed her commitment to telehealth early in her tenure, and this rule shows she was serious.

Telemedicine is generally divided into three modalities: real-time (live video or phone); remote patient monitoring (asynchronous monitoring); and store-and-forward (sending images via secure messaging). All are regulated differently, and this proposed rule addressed all three.

Physician-Patient Telehealth in Medicare
The CMS proposal getting the most attention is the addition of a new code for a “brief communications technology-based service,” or a virtual check-in (real-time) conducted by a physician or other qualified health care professional for 5-10 minutes of medical discussion. It’s meant to allow the provider “to assess whether the patient’s condition necessitates an office visit.” It can’t originate from a provider service offered within the previous seven days nor lead to a service or procedure within the next 24 hours or soonest available appointment. If either of those things is linked to the virtual visit, the virtual check-in gets bundled into the office visit and is not separately billable.

CMS is proposing to price this service at a rate lower than existing E/M in-person visits ($14 for the new service, compared to $92 for an in-person E/M visit) to reflect the “low work time and intensity.” This service could only be furnished to established patients.

The way the Medicare statute is written necessitated the creation of this new code because rural and site limitations apply to primary care and behavioral health codes that would be useful in treating Medicare patients remotely. By creating a new code, CMS got around the statutory limitation. They did as much as they can without Congressional action, but even with their clever approach we need Congress to change the law to fully allow real-time telehealth to take hold in Medicare (as will be discussed in more detail in my second post).

Remote Patient Monitoring
Remote patient monitoring, or the transmission of biometric information from patient to a medical provider asynchronously, is not considered “telehealth” under the Medicare statute. Therefore, it is not restricted by the same limitation applied to real-time telehealth visits. The newly created CPT codes related to remote patient monitoring – 990X0, 990X1, 93XX1 and 994X9 – were deemed by CMS to be “inherently non face-to-face” and therefore not telehealth services. So, these codes will simply be adopted as part of regular Medicare services under Part B in addition to CPT code 99091 which was unbundled from chronic care management (CCM) codes last year This is excellent news for patients with chronic illness who can benefit from a medical provider monitoring their disease state.

Remote Evaluation of Pre-Recorded Patient Information (“Store and Forward”)
Currently, store and forward, sending pre-recorded video or image technology to another provider for evaluation, is not permitted beyond Alaska and Hawaii. Like the virtual check-ins, CMS intends for store and forward information to be used to determine whether or not an office visit is warranted. It is mostly used in dermatology, radiology, pathology and ophthalmology.

CMS proposes to create a new code that would be separately billable as long as the review of a patient-submitted image or video does not result in an in-person office visit with the same physician, or originate from a service provided within the previous seven days by the same physician. In those cases, payment would be considered bundled into the in-person office visit.

CMS is seeking comment as to whether store and forward services should be limited to established patients, or whether there are certain cases where it might be appropriate for a new patient to receive these services.

Payment for Phone/Internet “Interprofessional Consultation”
CMS proposes to make a separate payment for interprofessional consultations undertaken “for the benefit of treating a patient that will contribute to payment accuracy for primary care and care management services.”

Interprofessional consultations include “assessment and management services conducted through telephone, internet, or electronic health record consultations furnished when a patient’s treating physician or other qualified healthcare professional requests the opinion and/or treatment advice of a consulting physician or qualified health professional with specific specialty expertise.”

Eventual Cuts to Base Rate to Achieve Budget Neutrality
CMS estimates that the usage of these new services will result in fewer than 1 million visits in the first year but will eventually result in more than 19 million visits per year, ultimately increasing payments under the PFS by about 0.2 percent. In order to maintain budget neutrality in setting proposed rates for CY19, CMS assumed the number of services that would result in a 0.2 percent reduction in the proposed base rate conversion factor.

Stay tuned for the second part of this series next week.