Patient Distancing: The Critical Role Telehealth Will Play During the Coronavirus Pandemic

March 13, 2020

Health care industry leaders are trumpeting telehealth services and related digital health capabilities as a means of enhancing the response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Alliance for Connected Care, the American Telemedicine Association, the eHealth Initiative and the Partnership for Artificial Intelligence, Automation and Robotics in Healthcare all lobbied Congressional leaders to fund telehealth initiatives and ease regulations on Medicare reimbursement for the use of telehealth during the pandemic.

In response, on March 6, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act became law. Included in the act is the Telehealth Services During Certain Emergency Periods Act, which provides supplemental funding and eases Medicare reimbursement for telehealth services related to the coronavirus.

The act allows the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to implement a temporary waiver of the originating site and geographic requirements for telehealth services provided to Medicare patients located in an “emergency area” during an “emergency period.” Under current regulations, reimbursement of telehealth services under Medicare is limited by the geographic location (i.e. a rural area) of the patient receiving such telehealth services. Such patient must also be in an approved “originating site” (i.e. hospitals, clinics, etc.).

The waiver of these restrictions lets providers use telehealth outside of rural areas and allows patients to be in environments other than the traditional “originating sites.” However, the waiver only applies to qualifying health care providers that have treated the patient within the previous three years or that are in the same practice with a health care provider who treated a patient in the last three years.

Finally, the act expands telecommunication opportunities to allow Medicare patients to receive telehealth services via his or her smart phone device.

Despite the act’s emergency measures for telehealth, health care providers should know that Medicare currently reimburses for certain communication-technology-enabled remote patient monitoring services that CMS does not consider “Medicare telehealth services.” For example, if certain requirements are met, CMS will reimburse providers for brief check-ins with an established patient via live video or telephone call to assess whether an office visit or other service is necessary.

Health care providers must also still be aware of and comply with current state telehealth laws and regulations, including professional licensure, patient consent, scope of practice and standard of care. This act is focused on telehealth services rendered to Medicare patients only and does not apply to services rendered to commercial patients or other federal health care program patients.

Health care providers should keep monitoring regulatory changes as President Donald Trump is expected to announce additional changes to allow for greater flexibility for health care providers to respond to the coronavirus, which could include additional telehealth measures.

The use of telehealth and related digital health technologies could reduce exposure to and transmittal of the coronavirus by allowing patients to be assessed and treated without direct contact between providers and patients or by allowing compromised patients to be assessed or treated in isolation.

If you have questions regarding the provision of telehealth services during this public health crisis, please contact us.