Even as telemedicine is increasingly proven to help keep chronic diseases under control and gains acceptance among patients, some of the neediest Medicare beneficiaries in the country will be losing access to this valuable service as the government redraws county maps across the country. Medicare patients in 97 countries from Hawaii to Puerto Rico to Minnesota will be redefined as living in “metropolitan” areas, precluding them from receiving Medicare coverage for video conferencing and other telehealth activities, even though 80% of beneficiaries live in urban counties such as those cut from the list.
“Congress has long overlooked the need for telemedicine services for residents of urban counties, despite the fact that they often suffer similar problems accessing healthcare. Now, because of a statistical quirk, even more people will lose coverage of these services, reducing access and care,” said Jonathan Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association.
While the net loss of coverage is significant, twenty-eight counties, including five in Virginia and three in Indiana, are being added to the list, making their residents eligible for coverage. Medicare patients in two Missouri counties will now be covered, which comes on the heels of the Missouri State Senate unanimously approving legislation to require all private insurers to cover electronic and remote medical services at the same rate as in-person care. Telemedicine is become more and more important, said Senator Rob Schaaf, a physician who noted that the increasing specialization of medical providers leads many people to seek information and consults on the internet.
The southern and Atlantic states, including Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas are being hit particularly hard by the new map, updated by the federal Standards Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSA) guidelines in response to the 2010 national census. Each state will be losing at least three counties of coverage, regardless of the fact that most of those states are consistently labeled among the least healthy communities in the nation.
Several recent studies suggest that mHealth options and telemedicine are helpful for managing common chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, illnesses that are reaching epidemic levels among low-income populations. “Medicare should cover remote health services for all beneficiaries, regardless of location,” Linkour urged. “We call on Congress to ensure that existing beneficiaries will not lose coverage for these services.”