Once a primary means of communication, audio-only telephone calls seem increasingly obsolete to millions of Americans who text with their friends and Zoom with their colleagues. However, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of all types of telecommunications. Our recent research among federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) serving two million low-income patients in California demonstrated that audio-only health care visits were instrumental in maintaining access to care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, coverage for audio-only visits is likely temporary. Many payers including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services are likely to stop reimbursing for most audio-only visits in coming months because of cost and quality concerns (PDF). This is a mistake. We are at risk of devaluing and prematurely casting off a key telemedicine modality, a move that could mean the difference between a needed doctor visit and no visit at all.

Even though many payers did not recognize audio-only visits as a form of telemedicine prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and seldom reimbursed for them, audio-only visits have exploded in the past few months. Once the national emergency was declared, many payers started reimbursing for audio-only and video visits at the same rate as in-person visits to support social distancing. Policymakers recognized that given the digital divide, mandating video visits would leave certain patients behind. However, payment for audio-only visits was not intended to be permanent policy. We argue that reimbursement of audio-only visits should continue for several years after the public health emergency to avoid exacerbating disparities in access to care.

Read the full article about telemedicine amid COVID-19 by Allison Ober, Zach Predmore,Maggie Jones Lori Uscher-Pines, Lori, and Jessica Sousa at RAND Corporation.