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GAO releases report on Medicare telehealth

Written on Nov 2, 2022

A new report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides an assessment and recommendations for Medicare telehealth services in the wake of the pandemic.  

The report, Medicare Telehealth: Actions Needed to Strengthen Oversight and Help Providers Educate Patients on Privacy and Security Risks, describes the utilization of Medicare telehealth services under current pandemic-related waivers, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) efforts to identify and monitor risks posed by the current waivers, and a change made by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to the enforcement of regulations governing patients' protected health information during the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE). 

The GAO made four recommendations—three directed to CMS and one directed to OCR—aimed at remedying the issues outlined in the report: 

  • CMS should develop an additional billing modifier or clarify its guidance regarding billing of audio-only office visits to allow the agency to fully track these visits. 

  • CMS should require providers to use available site of service codes to indicate when Medicare telehealth services are delivered to beneficiaries in their homes. 

  • CMS should comprehensively assess the quality of Medicare services, including audio-only services, delivered using telehealth during the PHE. 

  • OCR should provide additional education, outreach or other assistance to providers to help them explain the privacy and security risks to patients in plain language when using video telehealth platforms to provide telehealth services. 

Among its utilization findings, the GAO report found that the use of telehealth services increased from about five million services pre-waiver (April to December 2019) to more than 53 million services post-waiver (April to December 2020) and that, post-waiver, 5% of providers delivered more than 40% of telehealth services, and 5% of beneficiaries accounted for almost 40% of telehealth utilization. 

The report noted that CMS lacks complete data on the use of audio-only technology and telehealth visits furnished in patients' homes, because there is no billing mechanism for providers to identify all instances of audio-only visits, and because providers are not required to use available codes to identify visits furnished in homes. The GAO report also noted that OCR did not advise providers about specific language to use or give direction on explaining risks to patients, with respect to OCR's March 2020 policy that it would not impose penalties against providers for noncompliance with privacy and security requirements in connection with the good faith provision of telehealth during the PHE. 

This GAO report comes on the heels of a recent report from the HHS Office of Inspector General that found little evidence of waste and fraud related to Medicare telehealth services during the first year of the pandemic. These reports are part of a broader push by Congress and the Biden administration to examine current telehealth flexibilities and determine how to extend them beyond the COVID-19 PHE.