White House Unveils Sweeping Telehealth Plan, Renews Calls for Social Distancing

Medicare plans to make doctors’ consultations by video available for up to 62 million patients.

Doctor at desk looking at phone and computer during telehealth consultation.

Medically reviewed in April 2022

Updated on March 18, 2020

As part of the ongoing effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House announced an expansion of telehealth capabilities for Medicare recipients.

“Medicare patients can visit a doctor by video without additional cost, including with commonly used services like FaceTime and Skype,” President Trump said at a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2020.

The telehealth initiative builds on efforts to reinforce social distancing amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, which would help slow the spread of the highly contagious infection and protect those at highest risk for complications. The move also helps maintain hospital capacity by reducing unnecessary visits to doctors’ offices and emergency departments.

The initiative would extend to nearly 62 million Medicare beneficiaries who are among the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, according to Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). Telehealth benefits had previously been limited to Medicare recipients who were already established patients or who lived in rural areas, Verma noted.

In her remarks describing the telehealth program, Verma cited the example of an elderly patient with diabetes seeking a routine checkup. “With our telehealth benefits, this person who is at risk for the coronavirus does not have to venture outside their home,” she explained. “They can talk to their doctor via Skype and not have to risk exposure to the virus.”

With the number of reported U.S. COVID-19 cases and deaths rising rapidly and the crisis nearing a tipping point, public health experts believe it’s imperative to reduce the number of patients seeking in-person care for non-life-threatening conditions and procedures. “This allows the healthcare system to prioritize care for those who have more need or are in dire need,” Verma said.

Deborah L. Birx, MD, response coordinator for the U.S. Coronavirus Task Force, also issued a call to patients facing elective surgeries in the weeks to come: “Do not get it done. Let's be responsible and cancel things that we can cancel to free up hospital beds and space.”

Accessing telehealth
While CMS’s move toward telehealth applies to patients covered by Medicare, Verma noted that the Trump administration is also urging state-sponsored programs to provide telehealth services and has asked private insurers to expand telehealth benefits, as well.

The shift to telehealth poses logistical challenges for many elderly Americans unfamiliar with or lacking access to video conferencing apps or technologies. As a starting point, Verma advised patients to call their doctors’ offices or 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) for assistance, or to ask family members for help, while “respecting requirements over social distancing.” She also noted that telehealth services may be provided in nursing homes and a variety of outpatient settings. 

Renewed calls for social distancing
During the press briefing, members of the task force doubled down on previous calls for social distancing to help curb the spread of the virus.

“We are asking our older generation to stay in their homes and our younger generations to support them in social contacting through videos and Skype or the telephone,”
said Dr. Birx.

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the task force, reiterated that social distancing is crucial to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, with a special appeal to younger adults. “Help us with this mitigation strategy by staying out of the bars, staying out of the restaurants, really trying to distance yourself,” he said. 

This call applies to everyone—even if you feel fine. It’s possible that some people, so-called silent spreaders, may carry the virus without noticeable symptoms and still spread it to others. “You don't want to put your loved ones at risk, particularly the ones who are elderly and the ones who have compromised conditions,” Dr. Fauci added. “We can't do this without the young people cooperating. Please cooperate with us.”

Steps everyone can take to help stem the outbreak
COVID-19 spreads from person to person through direct contact or droplet transmission. So, in addition to practicing social distancing, it’s crucial to follow other preventive measures, including frequent hand washing, not touching your face with unwashed hands, staying home when sick, avoiding exposure to people who may be sick and covering your coughs and sneezes.

With cities in Northern California’s Bay Area currently operating under “shelter in place” guidelines and other U.S. cities expected to follow suit, President Trump stopped short of endorsing the notion of a nationwide lockdown. “In one sense, it would work,” he said, “but we haven’t decided to do that.”

When asked about non-essential overseas spring vacations, the President was more emphatic. “I would say enjoy your home and stay. Stay. We have to get this problem fixed.”

Article sources open article sources

C-Span.org. “President Trump and Coronavirus Task Force Hold Briefing.” March 17, 2020.
Whitehouse.gov. “Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing.” March 17, 2020.
Christina Maxouris, Jason Hanna and Steve Almasy. “Coronavirus now in all 50 states as death toll passes 100.” CNN.com. March 17, 2020.
Winifred V. Quinn, Ellen O’Brien, and Gregg Springan. “Using Telehealth to Improve Home-Based Care for Older Adults and Family Caregivers.” AARP Public Policy Institute. Insight on the Issues. 135, May 2018.
“N.Y.C. May ‘Shelter in Place,’ and M.T.A. Seeks $4 Billion Federal Bailout.” NYTimes.com. March 17, 2020.

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