As federal employees prepare to make their selections for next year’s health insurance benefits, some may wonder whether telehealth services, made especially popular and necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, will stick around.
For the most part, beneficiaries under the Federal Employee Health Benefits program will not see a major drop-off of telehealth options for 2023, said the White House’s Office of Personnel Management’s Edward DeHarde, who leads federal employee insurance operations, in an interview.
“We encouraged telehealth for a couple of years before the pandemic, and I think we thought correctly that it’s an excellent way to expand access to care,” said DeHarde. “We are continuing to ask that services be made available, and we’re anxious to see an evolution, not a backwards progress.”
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, telehealth use nationwide was 38 times higher than pre-pandemic levels, as of February. In traditional fee-for-service Medicare, telehealth accounted for less than 1% of primary care visits prior to the pandemic, but 40% at the peak.
All FEHB carriers are continuing initiatives that expanded during the pandemic related to telehealth, OPM’s plan highlights document said, which was released earlier this month.
“The utilization of telehealth services has appropriately gone up quite a bit, and we would anticipate it would continue to be high [as] we’re all entering a hybrid period,” DeHarde said.
During the pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services elected to pay for telehealth visits at the same rate as in-person visits to minimize disruptions to care and ease financial burdens. The 2021 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule made coverage for many telehealth services permanent, and health plans followed CMS’ lead during the pandemic and reimbursed telehealth appointments at the same rate as in-person visits.
For 2023, CMS proposed extending coverage for all interim telehealth services for five months after the “public health emergency” ends.
The House of Representatives also voted 416–12 for a bipartisan bill that extends Medicare telehealth payment and regulatory flexibilities through the end of 2024.
DeHarde said that telehealth is not just a convenience; it plays an important role in mitigating transportation difficulties especially in rural communities and for patients who are house-bound. It also promotes health equity for working families who may not always be able to duck out of the office for an appointment.
For mental health and substance abuse disorder services, the expansion of telehealth has also improved accessibility. And patients with chronic disease may benefit from remote monitoring to provide continuity of care.
Carriers are meeting this need in different ways, OPM said.
Some providers are simply rendering telehealth where they recently made patients come in-person.
Kevin Moss of Consumers’ Checkbook said others have partnered with a third-party service to provide telehealth.
“So instead of you talking to your doctor, you’re talking to a doctor somewhere else in the country who’s helping you,” he said in a phone interview.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.