Make telehealth a permanent option for cancer patients

In a statement released today, several University of Illinois Cancer Center members advocate for pandemic telehealth rules to become permanent for patients with chronic conditions because virtual visits are one way to improve access to high-quality, equitable care.

In March 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded eligibility for telehealth and increased physician reimbursement to the same rate as in-person visits.  Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CMS strictly limited Medicare coverage for telehealth services and in many states paid a fraction of the cost of an in-person appointment.

In a position statement published by the Society of Behavioral Medicine, authors including Cancer Center members Shikha Jain, MD,  Ryan Nguyen, DO, Mary Pasquinelli, DNP, and Marian Fitzgibbon, PhD, recommend that state and federal governments pass legislation requiring insurance companies to continue paying for telehealth visits at the same rate as in-person appointments and permanently remove barriers for virtual visits.

“Cancer patients are often immunocompromised, afraid of contracting COVID-19, and often need to see their physicians and care teams frequently. The pandemic has shown us there are ways to successfully integrate telehealth visits into the overall patient care plan and that virtual visits can help to address some of the financial toxicity that often accompanies serious and chronic illness,” said Dr. Jain.

Some of the recommendations proposed by the team of authors include:

  • CMS should make the interim March 2020 rules that reduced barriers to telehealth access permanent so that patients with chronic medical conditions and clinicians can continue to use telehealth via audio-only or video when appropriate.
  • To ensure medical practices can continue to deliver care, federal and state governments should pass legislation enforcing payment parity of telehealth services for private insurers.

The authors noted that requiring in-person visits solely on the basis of reimbursement is an unreasonable burden for many patients. Prior to the emergency rule, CMS imposed restrictions on telehealth appointments that prevented the expansion of virtual visits.

While telehealth can improve health care equity for patients in rural and underserved areas by connecting them with specialty care, the authors noted that requiring a video connection is a barrier for patients who don’t have access to a stable broadband connection.

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