Lawmaker Pushes CMS to Include Telehealth Services Through Telephone


Medicare recipients must use video-conferencing for remote visits with care providers.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services presently reimburse health care providers for telehealth services offered to Medicare recipients through video-conferencing on laptops or tablets—but the current federal rules exclude coverage for telephone, or audio-only conversations.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., aims to change that.

The lawmaker penned a letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma Monday, pushing the agency to expand Medicare coverage to telehealth services that only incorporate sound through the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“During this public health crisis, CMS must do everything it can to help ... our nation’s most vulnerable populations,” Markey wrote. “I urge CMS to allow providers to bill Medicare for telehealth services provided by audio-only communications equipment.”

In the letter, the senator quotes current federal regulations that direct CMS to reimburse medical providers solely for telehealth services offered through “communications equipment that includes, at a minimum, audio and video equipment permitting two-way, real-time interactive communication.” Markey said this means that “many of the more than 44 million Americans who rely on Medicare” cannot access those telehealth services inside their own homes. 

The senator wrote that Medicare recipients—who are at least 65 years old—may not have access to adequate internet connections or have video-enabled devices. 

Markey also notes in the letter that CMS made a step in the right direction March 17, when it issued guidance temporarily waiving certain Medicare requirements for telehealth service, which in part enabled patients to use “a wider range of communication tools including telephones that have audio and video capabilities.” 

But the lawmaker said it can go further. 

“CMS created the prohibition on audio-only telehealth by regulation, and CMS has the authority to lift it,” he wrote. “I urge CMS to do so immediately, and reimburse providers for audio-only telehealth services during the remainder of this public health crisis.” 

Congress is considering legislation that would clarify CMS’s authority to waive these requirements during a public health emergency, Markey said, but the agency could take more immediate action now. 

Editor's Note: CMS announced Monday evening that it would temporarily allow audio-only appointments for telehealth.