By Allyson Y. Schwartz
President and CEO, Better Medicare Alliance
Even as states begin to slowly lift stay at home orders and some Americans find themselves returning to work, the COVID-19 pandemic is still felt across our communities. As of this writing, the disease has claimed over 400,000 lives worldwide. Meanwhile, face masks, social distancing, and disruptions to our everyday routines remain a temporary new normal.
In the face of this public health crisis, we have all heard a great deal about the possibilities of telehealth, also known as telemedicine – technology-enabled care whereby beneficiaries can remotely connect with their health provider to receive care. ABC News declared in March that “telemedicine is having a moment.” More recently, a McKinsey & Co. report found that telehealth is on track to become a $250 billion industry this year.
At the Better Medicare Alliance, we, too, recognize the potential in telehealth and have pushed for greater flexibilities for Medicare Advantage (MA) to leverage the power of this transformative tool to manage seniors’ care and keep costs low – including pushing for the greater use of telehealth visits during the COVID-19 crisis and a successful advocacy campaign supporting the finalization of a Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services rule allowing MA beneficiaries access to a wider set of health care providers through changes to telehealth and network adequacy requirements. These positive reforms can dramatically expand access to Medicare Advantage’s better outcomes, lower costs and coordinated care for seniors in rural and underserved areas.
Meanwhile, Medicare Advantage plan sponsors – ranging from Aetna, Anthem, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and Humana to SCAN Health Plan and UnitedHealthcare – have waived consumer costs for telehealth visits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many care teams in MA transitioned quickly to telehealth – reaching out to their patients to ensure they knew how to get the care and services they need during this emergency.
Amid all of the talk about telehealth from politicians and industry leaders, it can be easy to miss what beneficiaries have to say. That is why we at Better Medicare Alliance have devoted the last month to listening to seniors’ stories about telehealth and carrying their message forward.
We partnered with pollsters at Morning Consult to conduct a scientific survey of 2,000 seniors on Medicare Advantage nationwide. Results from the survey – conducted from May 16 through 18 – showed us that an overwhelming 91 percent of beneficiaries who use telehealth services report favorable experiences and 78 percent are willing to try it again.
Separately, Better Medicare Alliance reached out to our 460,000 grassroots beneficiary advocates to hear stories that we knew polling alone cannot fully capture.
Rita in New River, Arizona described her “wonderful telehealth experience” with her physician assistant, Emily, adding that she has already booked a follow-up visit via telehealth for the following week.
Marianne in Nashville, Tennessee explained that “’Most of my appointments at Vanderbilt Medical Center have been via telehealth, and they have worked well.”
Likewise, Mary in Palm City, Florida recounted her telehealth experience as “convenient and much easier than going to the office” during this time of social distancing and concerns over COVID-19. “It saves time for me and the doctor,” she adds.
While coronavirus has upended so much of our daily routines, findings from Morning Consult show that telehealth is helping maintain continuity of care for MA beneficiaries during this time of crisis. A full 73 percent of those surveyed report that they have continued to receive care as needed for their health care needs, either in person or by telehealth.
At the same time, our survey and conversations with seniors revealed opportunities for growth in telehealth and the need for policymakers to offer accommodations for seniors who are still getting acquainted with this technology.
While Morning Consult found that seniors who use telehealth are satisfied, this cohort of the Medicare Advantage population remains a small minority: only 24 percent of those surveyed had used telehealth in the last 60 days. Nearly one-third of seniors (30 percent) admit they are uncomfortable with using telehealth to receive care – a statistic that was reaffirmed to us in beneficiary interviews.
“I had a hard time getting my video to work,” said Debra in Jacksonville, Florida. Similarly, Stephen in Portland, Oregon told us he was “discouraged” because “I don’t think I ever got it to work.”
As seniors adapt to the possibilities of this innovation, it is critical that the health care community find ways to meet beneficiaries where they are.
This is why we at Better Medicare Alliance are championing the allowance of audio-only telehealth visits – such as a simple phone call between a beneficiary and their clinician – for the purpose of completing the required annual “risk assessment,” which helps determine every Medicare Advantage beneficiary’s health risks and the rate at which Medicare Advantage will be paid for their care.
With vulnerable seniors being urged to continue staying at home in order to reduce exposure to COVID-19, we have a responsibility to find ways to adapt in this unprecedented moment to meet the needs of those who are not able to complete a video-visit with their doctor or are otherwise uncomfortable with doing so.
Telehealth is here to stay, and we celebrate the ways this technology will continue to positively impact patient care, but discovering its fullest potential means finding ways to help beneficiaries along in this process. At Better Medicare Alliance, we look forward to our continued work with policymakers, Ally organizations, and seniors to do exactly that.