The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services published a data snapshot dated October 2021, examining telehealth utilization by Medicare beneficiaries from March to December 2020. During this period, 26 million Medicare beneficiaries (39% of all Medicare beneficiaries) received at least one telehealth service. The OIG found that 84% of Medicare beneficiaries received all their telehealth services from providers with whom they had an established relationship. For office visits, 83% of beneficiaries had an established relationship. Office visits were the most common type of telehealth service, accounting for nearly half of all telehealth services (45.5 million office visits). Beneficiaries receiving home visits via telehealth were the least likely to have an established relationship with their provider (34%). However, home visits were only 1% of all services provided via telehealth.

There were some differences in telehealth utilization between beneficiaries in traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage plan enrollees. This is not unexpected, since Medicare Advantage plans had greater flexibility to cover telehealth services prior to the pandemic. During the study period, one third of beneficiaries in traditional Medicare received telehealth services compared to 45% of Medicare Advantage enrollees. A slightly larger percentage of traditional Medicare beneficiaries (86% compared to 81%) had an established relationship with the telehealth provider compared to Medicare Advantage enrollees, except for physical, occupational and speech therapy. Both traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage beneficiaries with established provider relationships had an in-person visit with the provider an average of four months prior to the first telehealth service.

Comment: this study should be reassuring to policymakers who worry that expanding telehealth eligibility permanently would open the floodgates to Medicare fraud. It suggests that Medicare beneficiaries are generally using telehealth as an adjunct to regular provider relationships.

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