The Biden administration recently signaled that it will extend the federal COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE), which has been in place for nearly two-and-a-half years, beyond its current July 15 expiration date. As shown in the graphic above, a number of key pandemic-era policies would end if the PHE were discontinued. Hospitals, already experiencing financial challenges, would face an immediate 20 percent reduction in Medicare reimbursement for each hospitalized COVID patient.
Combined with the end of funding for treating uninsured COVID patients, and with millions of Americans expected to lose Medicaid coverage when eligibility checks restart, the cost of treating COVID patients will fall more heavily on providers. More treatment costs will also be passed on to patients, as most private insurers no longer waive cost-sharing for COVID care.
On the telemedicine front, Congress has temporarily extended some Medicare telehealth flexibilities (including current payment codes and coverage for non-rural beneficiaries) for five months after the PHE ends, while CMS studies permanent coverage options. But further Congressional action will be required to keep current Medicare telehealth coverage in place, and these decisions will surely influence private insurers’ telehealth reimbursement policies.
Although the Biden administration promises that it will provide sixty days’ notice before terminating the PHE or letting it expire, providers must prepare for the inevitable financial hit when the PHE ends.
Adult inpatient volumes will recover to pre-pandemic numbers but grow only 2 percent over the next decade, a new report from Sg2 forecasts.
At the same time, adult inpatient days are expected to increase 8 percent and tertiary inpatient days are poised to increase 17 percent, fueled by an increase in chronic conditions.
“While case mix varies by hospital, it is likely this combination of increased inpatient volume, patient complexity and length of stay may require healthcare organizations to rethink service line prioritization, service distribution and investment in care at-home initiatives,” Maddie McDowell, MD, senior principal and medical director of quality and strategy for Sg2, said in a June 7 news release for the report.
Five other key takeaways from Sg2’s forecasts:
1. Outpatient volumes are projected to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2022 and then grow 16 percent through 2032, three percentage points above estimated population growth.
2. Surgical volumes are projected to grow 25 percent at ambulatory surgery centers and 18 percent at hospital outpatient departments and physician offices over the next decade.
3. The pandemic-driven decline in emergency department visits is expected to plateau with a decline in demand projected at -2 percent over the next 10 years.
4. Over the next five years, home care is expected to gain traction, with home evaluation and management visits seeing 19 percent growth, home hospice at 13 percent growth and home physical and occupational therapy at 10 percent growth.
5. Telehealth is expected to resume its climb and by 2032 account for 27 percent of all evaluation and management visits.
Welcome to Friday’s Health 202, where today we have a special spotlight on the pandemic two years in.
🚨 The federal government is about to be funded. The Senate sent the long-term spending bill to President Biden’s desk last night after months of intense negotiations.
Two years since the WHO declared a pandemic, what health-care system changes are here to stay?
Exactly two years ago, the World Health Organizationdeclared the coronavirus a pandemic and much of American life began grinding to a halt.
That’s when the health-care system, which has never been known for its quickness, sped up. The industry was forced to adapt, delivering virtual care and services outside of hospitals on the fly. Yet, the years-long pandemic has exposed decades-old cracks in the system, and galvanized efforts to fix them.
Today, as coronavirus cases plummet and President Biden says Americans can begin resuming their normal lives, we explore how the pandemic could fundamentally alter the health-care system for good. What changes are here to stay — and what barriers are standing in the way?
A telehealth boom
What happened: Telehealth services skyrocketed as doctors’ offices limited in-person visits amid the pandemic. The official declaration of a public health emergency eased long-standing restrictions on these virtual services, vastly expanding Medicare coverage.
But will it stick? Some of these changes go away whenever the Biden administration decides not to renew the public health emergency (PHE). The government funding bill passed yesterday extends key services roughly five months after the PHE ends, such as letting those on Medicare access telehealth services even if they live outside a rural area.
But some lobbyists and lawmakers are pushing hard to make such changes permanent. Though the issue is bipartisan and popular, it could be challenging to pass unless the measures are attached to a must-pass piece of legislation.
“Even just talking to colleagues, I used to have to spend three or four minutes while they were trying desperately not to stare at their phone and explain to them what telehealth was … remote patient monitoring, originating sites, and all this wonky stuff,”said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a longtime proponent of telehealth.
“Now I can go up to them and say, ‘So telehealth is great, right?’ And they say, ‘yes, it is.’ ”
A new spotlight on in-home care
What happened: The infectious virus tore through nursing homes, where often fragile residents share rooms and depend on caregivers for daily tasks. Ultimately, nearly 152,000 residents died from covid-19.
The devastation has sparked a rethinking of where older adults live and how they get the services they need — particularly inside their own homes.
“That is clearly what people prefer,” said Gail Wilensky, an economist at Project HOPE who directed the Medicare and Medicaid programs under President George H.W. Bush. “The challenge is whether or not it’s economically feasible to have that happen.”
More money, please: Finding in-home care — and paying for it — is still a struggle for many Americans. Meanwhile, many states have lengthy waitlists for such services under Medicaid.
Experts say an infusion of federal funds is needed to give seniors and those with disabilities more options for care outside of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
For instance, Biden’s massive social spending bill included tens of billions of dollars for such services. But the effort has languished on Capitol Hill, making it unclear when and whether additional investments will come.
A reckoning on racial disparities
What happened: Hispanic, Black, and American Indian and Alaska Native people are about twice as likely to die from covid-19 than White people. That’s according to age-adjusted data from a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report.
In short, the coronavirus exposed the glaring inequities in the health-care system.
“The first thing to deal with any problem is awareness,” said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Nobody can say that they’re not aware of it anymore, that it doesn’t exist.”
But will change come? Health experts say they hope the country has reached a tipping point in the last two years. And yet, any real systemic change will likely take time. But, Benjamin said, it can start with increasing the number of practitioners from diverse communities, making office practices more welcoming and understanding biases.
We need to, as a matter of course, ask ourselves who’s advantaged and who’s disadvantaged” when crafting new initiatives, like drive-through testing sites, Benjamin said. “And then how do we create systems so that the people that are disadvantaged have the same opportunity.”
A Colorado mom got quite the shock when she received a hefty “facility fee” bill for her toddler’s telehealth appointment.
Brittany Tesso said she had already paid a bill from Children’s Hospital Colorado for $676.86 for the 2-hour virtual visit for her 3-year-old son to determine if he required speech therapy, according to a report by KDVR, a Colorado TV station.
But 2 weeks later, she received a separate bill for an additional $847.35, leading Tesso to tell the station: “I would’ve gone elsewhere if they had told me there was an $850 fee, essentially for a Zoom call.”
Tesso said she was told the additional amount was for a “facility fee.”
“I was like, ‘Facility fee? I didn’t go to your facility,'” Tesso told the station. “I was at home and, as far as I could tell, some of the doctors were at home too.” Tesso said she was told by a hospital representative that it charges the same fee whether patients come to the facility or receive care via telehealth.
KDVR had reported an earlier story of a father who said he was charged a $503 facility fee after his son was seen at a medical practice in a building owned by Children’s Hospital Colorado, and roughly 20 viewers reached out to the news outlet about their similar experiences.
Tesso told KDVR that she believed the second bill was a surprise bill, and suggested that state lawmakers could do more to prevent such instances. An HHS rule banning surprise billing went into effect on January 1 of this year.
Adam Fox, deputy director at the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, told KDVR that patients have little recourse because there are no regulations in the state regarding facility fees charged by hospitals.
In a statement provided to KDVR, Children’s Hospital Colorado said that the issue was not exclusive to the hospital, and that it continually looks at its own practices “to see where it can adjust and improve.”
The hospital added in the statement that it continues “to advocate for state and federal policies that address healthcare consumer cost concerns through more affordable and accessible insurance coverage and hospital and provider price transparency, while also defending children’s access to care and the unique needs of a pediatric hospital.”
In response to a MedPage Today request for comment, the hospital said it had no further information to share.
Telehealth is likely to remain a mainstay in healthcare delivery, according to a December Kaiser Health News (KHN) article, but experts also told KHN that it’s not yet clear how such appointments, and any accompanying facility fees, will be handled moving forward.
The digital health company Babylon recently completed a deal to acquire health kiosk manufacturer Higi Health, followed by an announcement this week that it is also buying episodic care management company DaytoDay Health. London-based Babylon, which went public last October, has moved quickly into the US market, acquiring two independent physician associations in California last year, and expanding its at-risk Medicaid contracts across five states.
The Gist: Babylon has long rejected being called a “virtual care” or “telehealth” company in favor of being called a “digital-first value-based care” company. It now claims to manage more than 350,000 lives worldwide, which are the driving force behind its strong financials.
We’d expect Babylon and other digital-first companies to seek out avenues to “own” attributable lives, as pure-play telemedicine services become increasingly commoditized.
Another challenging year defined by the continued COVID-19 fight and vaccination drives has created a unique healthcare landscape. Pandemic-induced telehealth booms, continued strain due to understaffing and pressure from big tech disruptors are just some of the issues that have presented themselves this year.
Here are five major trends that hospitals and health systems may see in 2022. While some present challenges, others present significant opportunities for healthcare facilities.
Record numbers of workers have quit their jobs in 2021, with some 4.4 million people quitting in September. That means that 1 in 4 people quit their jobs this year across all industries. Around 1 in 5 healthcare workers have left their positions, creating issues with understaffing and lack of resources in hospitals and health systems. Stress, burnout and lack of balance have all been cited as reasons for staff leaving their roles. An increase in violence toward medical professionals, continued COVID-19 surges and low pay and benefits have contributed to the exodus of healthcare workers. None of those problems seems poised to disappear come 2022, so the new year could bring continued workforce and staffing challenges.
Pressure from disruptors
Big tech and retail giants have continued their push into healthcare this year. Companies like Apple, Amazon and Google stepped up their game in the wearables market. Pharmacy and retail chains Walmart and CVS Health both detailed their intended expansions into primary care. The pandemic also encouraged big corporations outside the healthcare sector, like Pepsi and Delta Airlines, to consider hiring CMOs to make sense of public health regulations guide them on their policy. These moves all mean there is a tightening of competition for the top physicians and hospital executives. Going into 2022, health systems may be under pressure to hang onto top talent and keep patients from using other convenient health services offered by retail giants.
The unequal toll of the pandemic on people of color both medically and economically helped shed a light on the rampant inequities in American healthcare and society at large. Indigineous, Black and Hispanic people were much more likely than white or Asian people to suffer severe illness or require hospitalization as a result of COVID-19. Increasing numbers of hospitals, health systems and organizations are starting initiatives to advance health equity and focus on the socioeconomic drivers of health. The American Medical Association launched a language guide to encourage greater awareness about the power of language. Z-code usage has also been encouraged by CMS to increase knowledge and data about the social determinants of health. Next year, the perspective of health as holistic instead of just a part of an individual’s life will continue, with special attention being paid to social drivers.
The pandemic helped the telemedicine industry take off in a big way. Telehealth was often the only healthcare option for many patients during the height of the lockdown measures introduced during the pandemic. Despite a return to in-person visits, telehealth has retained its popularity with patients. Some advocates argue that telehealth can help increase access to healthcare and improve health equity. About 40 percent of patients said that telehealth makes them more engaged and interact more frequently with their providers. However, while Americans see telehealth as the future of healthcare, a majority still prefer in-person visits. Regardless of patient opinion, telehealth will remain a key part of health strategy. In late December, the FCC approved $42.7 million in funding for telehealth for 68 healthcare providers. This suggests that there are investments and subsidies available in the future for health systems to bolster their telehealth services.
At the 2021 UN Climate Conference, Cop26, in Glasgow, Scotland, hospitals and health systems acknowledged the role they have to play in mitigating the effects of climate change. Hospitals and health systems shed light on the health-related effects of climate change, such as illness and disease from events like wildfires and extreme weather. Health systems are also becoming more aware of their own contributions to climate change, with the U.S. healthcare system emitting 27 percent of healthcare emissions worldwide. To that end, HHS created an office of climate change and health equity that will work alongside regulators to reduce carbon emissions from hospitals. More health systems too are taking charge and pledging net neutrality and zero carbon emissions goals, including Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealth group. It’s expected that more systems will follow suit in the coming year and make more concrete plans to address emissions reduction.
A bipartisan group of senators have introduced a bill to make telehealth reimbursement permanent for certain services such as those provided by physical therapists, audiologists, occupational therapists and speech language pathologists.
Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) introduced the “Expanded Telehealth Access Act” on Thursday, according to The Hill.
If passed, the legislation would extend telehealth reimbursement policies that were temporarily added during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has long said that Congressional action is needed to make emergency telehealth measures permanent.
But on Tuesday, CMS released new actions that will allow Medicare to pay for mental health virtual visits furnished by Rural Health Clinics and Federally-Qualified Health Centers. This is through telecommunications technology such as audio-only telehealth calls.
Telehealth is particularly important for rural areas where patients may have to travel long distances for care.
The Senate bill has the support of the American Telehealth Association, the American Physical Therapy Association, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association, among others, according to the report.
The biggest issue in telehealth reimbursement remains. This is whether providers will be continued to be paid at in-person parity for a telehealth visit.
THE LARGER TREND
The Senate Bill is a companion to a House bill introduced in March by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) called the Expanded Telehealth Access Act.
In May, Senator Daines, one of the sponsors of Thursday’s legislation, with Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), proposed the “Telehealth Expansion Act of 2021” to permanently allow first-dollar coverage of virtual care under high-deductible health plans.
Every health system and physician group is now focused on strategies to make telemedicine more scalable across their networks. When we spoke recently with a chief medical information officer (CMIO) leading his system’s telemedicine strategy, he shared, “If there is one thing I wish executives would understand about telemedicine, it’s that it will never make doctors more efficient.”
His data show the average video visit takes just as long as an in-person encounter. True, there is no physical exam, but the virtual conversations can be lengthy. And adding in time lost to helping patients troubleshoot technology, some of his colleagues report that virtual visits may actually take a little longer.
He went on to explain that other kinds of virtual encounters, specifically asynchronous communication with a provider, sometimes supported by automated symptom triage engines like Zipnosis, are far more time-efficient ways to communicate with patients. Certain clinical situations may better lend themselves to these types of “e-visits”. Take dermatology, where sending a high-resolution picture of a rash to the clinician is more valuable than trying to view the problem live on a Zoom call.
Of course, video visits can be far more convenient for patients—and there is huge value in in providing access to patients wherever they are. But delivering telemedicine “at scale” to meet rising consumer expectations will require finding the right balance of asynchronous communication, telemedicine, and in-person visits to best fit specific clinical circumstances.
And we’ll need to rethink clinical workflow—centralizing some telemedicine delivery at the system level across individual practices.
Telehealth claim lines as a percentage of all medical claims dropped 13% in April, marking the third straight month of declines, according to new data from nonprofit Fair Health.
The dip was greater than the drop of 5.1% in March, but not as large as the decrease of almost 16% in February. However, overall utilization remains significantly higher than pre-COVID-19 levels.
The decline appears to be driven by a rebound in in-person services, researchers said. Mental health conditions bucked the trend, however, as the percentage of telehealth claim lines associated with mental conditions — the No. 1 telehealth diagnosis — continued to rise nationally and in every U.S. region.
The coronavirus spurred an unprecedented increase in telehealth utilization early last year. But early data from 2021 suggests demand is slowing as vaccinations ramp up and COVID-19 cases decrease across the U.S.
Fair Health has used its database of over 33 billion private claims records to analyze the monthly evolution of telehealth since May last year. Telehealth usage peaked among the privately insured population last April, before easing through September and re-accelerating starting in October, as the coronavirus found a renewed foothold in the U.S.
In January, virtual care claims made up 7% of all medical claim lines, but that fell to 5.9% in February, 5.6% in March and just 4.9% in April, suggesting a steady deceleration in telehealth demand.
The deceleration in April was seen in all U.S. regions, but was particularly pronounced in the South, Fair Health said, which saw a 12.2% decrease in virtual care claims.
The trend doesn’t bode well for the ballooning virtual care sector, which has enjoyed historic levels of funding during COVID-19. Just halfway through the year, 2021 has already blown past 2020’s record for digital health funding, with a whopping $14.7 billion. This latest data suggests dampening utilization could throw cold water on the red-hot marketplace.
And policymakers are still mulling how many telehealth flexibilities should be allowed after the public health emergency expires, expected at the end of this year. Virtual care enjoys broad support on both sides of the aisle and the Biden administration’s top health policy regulators, including CMS administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, have said they support permanently adopting virtual care coverage waivers, but returned restrictions on telehealth access could also stymie use.
Fair Health also found that nationally, mental health conditions increased from 57% from all telehealth claims in March to 59% in April. That month, psychotherapeutic/psychiatric codes jumped nationally as a percentage of telehealth procedure codes, while evaluation and management codes dropped, suggesting a continued need for virtual access to mental health services, which can be some of the rarest and most expensive medical services to find in one’s own geographic area.
Also in April, acute respiratory diseases and infections increased as a percentage of claim lines nationally, and in the Midwest and South, while general signs and symptoms joined the top five telehealth diagnoses in the West. Both trends suggest a return to non-COVID-19 respiratory conditions, like colds and bronchitis, and more ‘normal’ conditions like stomach viruses, researchers said.
Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic was named the best smart hospital in the world in 2021 by Newsweek.
For the list, the magazine partnered with consumer research company Statista to find the 250 hospitals that best equip themselves for success with technology. Newsweek said the hospitals on the list are the ones to watch as they “lead in their use of [artificial intelligence], robotic surgery, digital imaging, telemedicine, smart buildings, information technology infrastructure and EHRs.”
The ranking, published June 9, is based on a survey that included recommendations from national and international sources in five categories: digital surgery, digital imaging, AI, telehealth and EHRs.