The data brief provides insight into the use of telehealth in both Medicare fee-for-service and Medicare Advantage (MA) during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic from March 2020 through February 2021.

A new report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) indicates the long-term potential of telehealth (particularly behavioral health services) to increase access to health care for Medicare beneficiaries.

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OIG conducted the study to better understand the use of telehealth and how the temporary expansion of services during the COVID-19 pandemic affected where and how beneficiaries accessed their health care. The report is based on Medicare fee-for-service claims data and Medicare Advantage (MA) encounter data from March 1, 2020, to February 28, 2021 and from the prior year, March 1, 2019 to February 29, 2020.

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Key findings from the report:

  • More than two in five Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth during the first year of the pandemic, 88 times more than they used it in the prior year.
  • Telehealth use peaked in April 2020 but remained high through 2021.
  • The most common use of telehealth: Behavioral services. OIG found that Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth for 43 percent of behavioral health services and used telehealth for 13 percent of office visits.
  • Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries used more behavioral services than those in MA, with services accounting for 16 percent of all telehealth services in Medicare fee-for-service, compared to nine percent in MA.

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OIG said the use of telehealth demonstrates the long-term potential of telehealth to increase access to health care for beneficiaries. The findings are important for lawmakers to consider when making permanent changes to telehealth in Medicare.