The federal Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently published a report (OIG Report) as part of a series of analyses of the expansion and utilization of telehealth in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.  In its report, the OIG concludes that telehealth was “critical for providing services to Medicare beneficiaries during the first year of the pandemic” and that the utilization of telehealth “demonstrates the long-term potential of telehealth to increase access to health care for beneficiaries.” The OIG’s conclusions are notable because they come at a time when policymakers and health care stakeholders are determining whether and how to make permanent certain expansions of telehealth for patients nationwide.

The OIG Report is based on Medicare claims and encounter data from the “first” year of the pandemic (March 1, 2020 through February 28, 2021) as compared to data for the immediately preceding year (March 1, 2019 through February 29, 2020). Per the OIG Report, the OIG observed that approximately 43% of Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth during the first year of the pandemic, and that office visits were the most common telehealth encounter for those patients. The telehealth utilization data showed an 88-fold increase over the utilization of telehealth services for the prior year, which in part reflects the significant limitations on telehealth reimbursement under Medicare prior to COVID-19, in addition to the significant regulatory expansion of telehealth at the federal and state levels in response to COVID-19.

Interestingly, the OIG Report states that beneficiaries enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan “were more likely to use telehealth” than Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries, and that “CMS’s temporary policy changes enabled the monumental growth in the use of telehealth in multiple ways,” including by expanding the permissible patient locations, and the types of services that could be provided via telehealth. In addition, the OIG indicated that the use of telehealth for behavioral health services by beneficiaries “stands out” because of the higher incidence of beneficiaries accessing those services via telehealth, which may in turn influence policymaking and increase access to critical behavioral health care services.

Finally, the OIG Report notably includes a footnote which indicates that a separate report on “Program Integrity Risks” is forthcoming, which may shed light on corresponding compliance concerns that have arisen in connection with the significant expansion of telehealth in response to COVID-19.