“But who is going to pay for it?!” — New Medicare Billing Codes for 2015 Include Remote Chronic Disease Management

“But who is going to pay for it?!”
This has been the common refrain for years. The world of diabetes care experienced this dilemma relatively early-on, as some of the earliest digital health tools were in the diabetes field. When home glucose monitoring became easier and more ubiquitous, and then continuous, people with diabetes were all of a sudden collecting loads of data at home that might dramatically impact their care… and then waiting 3 months to come in to the office to discuss that data. I am asked this question all the time about the startup company I advise, Tidepool, because Tidepool facilitates better and easier remote diabetes care.
It is not just diabetes. In general, there has been more hype and excitement over digital health than impact in clinical practice. A significant reason is the mismatch between payment models and digital health use cases. We still largely live in a fee-for-service world, where we are paid to provide care during a “face to face” office visit and everything is measured by having a “billable encounter.” Most digital health tools, by bringing platforms, apps, sensors, devices, and analytics onto mobile and onto the consumer at home or at work, facilitate care happening outside of my exam room. This does not generate a “billable encounter” and there is no “face to face” office visit.
I don’t think I’m revealing anything new here by saying that it has been beyond a tough sell getting the healthcare system to implement digital health innovations in a fee-for-service environment. How enticing is it to anybody to do a lot of work for free? Doctors do it, but begrudgingly and in small batches.
As for Tidepool, we’ve known that it would be a tough sell initially, but had faith that payment models would change and that we would be ready when they did. I’ve written before about how I’d like to see my future practice operate once payment models changed. And now they are continuing to do so.
Medicare now looks to be slowly facilitating change to align payment models with exciting new technologies. As many media outlets are reporting (see CNN Money, iHealthBeat, Modern Healthcare, mHealthNews), CMS has announced that it will add new telemedicine billing codes starting January 1, 2015 (the CMS document is here). Doctors will be able to start billing Medicare using the 99490 and 99091 CPT codes for providing non-face-to-face, remote care, for patients with chronic conditions. Medicare has never in the past paid for the provision of these services.
A huge caveat that, in my opinion will continue to stymie progress, is that Medicare will still require patients to be in rural areas for these payments.
But, this remains a step forward toward the holy grail of aligning payment models and incentives with new digital health technologies. Paying doctors to provide remote, non-face-to-face care for patients with chronic diseases is the right thing to do for patients and for the healthcare system. Digital health innovations that would sputter under current payment models may take flight once remote care is reimbursed.
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