Telehealth claim lines increased 4,347% nationally from March 2019 to March 2020, growing from 0.17% of medical claim lines to 7.52% over that time, according to new data from FAIR Health's Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker.
The data represents the privately insured population, excluding Medicare and Medicaid. In an indication that the growth was related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the increase was even greater in the Northeast, where the pandemic hit hardest in March. Telehealth claim lines grew 15,503% in the Northeast, from 0.07% of medical claim lines in March 2019 to 11.07% a year later.
Telehealth had already been growing in recent years, but even faster growth has been predicted as a result of COVID-19. The technology permits healthcare services to be delivered without in-person contact, reducing the risk of disease transmission, and frees up in-person resources for COVID-19 patients. And with fewer elective procedures occurring around the country due to widespread restrictions, the telehealth share of total medical claim lines was expected to increase.
The platform's growth from February 2019 to February 2020, before the rapid escalation of the pandemic in the U.S., was substantially lower. Nationally, the increase as a percentage of medical claim lines in that period was 121%; in the Northeast it was 174%.
The Northeast was far and away the region that saw the highest increase in telehealth usage, but significant increases also occurred in the West, where the increase as a percentage of medical claim lines was 1,986%. In the Midwest it was 2,842%, and in the South, 3,427%.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT?
Other notable findings from the Tracker concerns diagnoses. From March 2019 to March 2020, acute respiratory diseases and infections decreased as a percentage of telehealth claim lines nationally and in all regions except the West.
In March, there is typically a drop from February in acute respiratory diagnoses as a result of the seasonality of influenza, but this drop from March to March may indicate that many people with acute respiratory symptoms, fearing they had COVID-19, preferred this year to see a physician in person.
Nationally, hypertension was one of the top five telehealth diagnoses in March 2020, whereas it was not in March 2019, or even in February 2020. Increased issues with blood pressure for people with hypertension may be related to increased stress during the pandemic. Another factor may be increased telehealth-monitoring of patients with hypertension so they do not need to go into the physician's office to be monitored.
THE LARGER TREND
In March, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services allowed for more than 80 additional services to be furnished via telehealth and for providers to bill for telehealth visits at the same rate as in-person visits.
The waivers will expire at the end of the pandemic, but CMS Administrator Seema Verma said recently that some would remain. Also, bipartisan support in Washington for telehealth suggests that some of the changes may become permanent, contingent on new legislation that would have to be crafted and passed by Congress.