Telemedicine adoption continues to accelerate as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps the pressure on strained healthcare systems. We are concerned about access to new forms of healthcare by elderly and disadvantaged populations who lack access or sufficient tech savviness to benefit from the new technologies. Telemedicine typically relies on biosensing wearable devices and smartphone apps; in many cases, these devices require Internet connectivity for communication between patients and healthcare professionals. Under an expanded program for chronically ill patients, Medicare Advantage plans now can cover non-medical expenses including internet connection costs.

The 2017-2018 CHRONIC Care Act for Medicare and Medicaid opened the door for supplemental benefits to cover certain non-medical costs related to healthcare. The acronym tells the story. CHRONIC stands for “Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic” illnesses. The Act promotes high-quality care in the home, team-based care, and increasing use of innovation and technology including telehealth. The CHRONIC Care Act was expanded in 2020 to include additional Special Supplemental Benefits for the Chronically Ill (SSBCI). , ATI Advisory reported that, according to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) data, the number of Medicare and Medicaid plans that include SSBCI benefits grew from 267 plans in 2020 to 947 plans in 2021.

Two examples of Medicare Advantages plans with SSBCI benefits are Wellcare and Healthfirst. Wellcare is a Medicare brand of Centene Corporation. Wellcare’s Medicare Advantage plan SSBCI benefits for qualifying members include robotic companion pets, grocery delivery, service animal support, a home health care concierge service, and a flex card for utilities assistance. Eligible members can receive a Visa debit card that is loaded with $50 to $125 per month. They can then use this card to pay for utilities including Internet service. The benefit can also be used to pay for gas, electricity, water, sewer, cable TV, or other utility bills, so it isn’t only for Internet access, but it’s a start that recognizes Internet connectivity as a vital utility related to healthcare.

Healthfirst, an health insurance provider for New Yorkers, provides its Medicare Advantage plan members with a Healthfirst OTC Plus Card. Depending on the plan level, members can use the OTC Card to pay or help pay from $90 to $170 a month for over-the-counter health-related items, fitness equipment, and activity trackers, as well as home Internet service. One of the plans can also cover hearing aids and personal emergency response systems.

From our perspective, Medicare SSBCI benefits are a big deal because they lower one of the barriers for more effective and reliable telehealth services and remote patient monitoring. At the same time, assisting with Internet connectivity can help alleviate isolation and loneliness for seniors, and reduce other precursor factors for illness. We expect that Medicare Advantage programs will find SSBCI benefits well worth the investment.