Telemedicine or telehealth uses digital communication technology to let healthcare providers serve patients without meeting them in-person. Till the beginning of 2020, telehealth worked with certain limitations. It was available only for patients in remote locations (mainly rural areas) where specialist doctors were not available and the patient had to be physically present in a healthcare facility.
Telehealth could only be provided to existing patients; new patients could not use the remote consultations facility. In addition, providers were only allowed to serve patients within their state.
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed all that, albeit temporarily. For the duration of the emergency declared by the Department of Health and Human Services, several restrictions regarding the provision of telehealth have been temporarily waived under 1135 waiver authority and Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. Take a look at the list below:
1. Prior to the waiver, Medicare paid for telehealth services on a limited basis. Effective March 6, 2020, Medicare can pay for office, hospital, and other visits including in patient’s places of residence furnished via telehealth across the USA. Such visits are considered the same as in-person visits and are paid at the rates the same as the ones applicable to regular, in-person visits.
2. The Medicare coinsurance and deductible would generally apply to telehealth services prior to the pandemic. Now, the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) has allowed healthcare providers to reduce/waive cost-sharing for federal healthcare programs sponsored-telehealth visits.
3. The HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) waived penalties for HIPAA violations against health care providers that serve patients through generic communications technologies, such as FaceTime or Skype, during the COVID-19 health emergency.
1. HHS will not conduct audits to track whether a prior patient-physician relationship existed for claims submitted during the public health emergency.
2. As per CMS, patients must initiate services. However, physicians may inform their patients about the availability of telehealth services.
3. In relation to Workers’ Compensation Board laws, state-specific new telehealth laws were passed to promote the use of telehealth during the nationwide emergency
Let’s have a look at the benefits of the new changes to the laws for the stakeholders.
1. Many providers can offer services: Providers including doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers will be able to offer services through telehealth.
2. First-time visits allowed: Physicians and other professionals will be able to provide three types of virtual healthcare services including Medicare telehealth visits, virtual check-ins, and e-visits to Medicare beneficiaries.
3. Offer services across states: Providers can now provide their services across geographical boundaries and will not be restricted by licensing requirements.
4. Full reimbursements of telehealth visits from Insurance: Reimbursement parity further encourages physicians to provide care without worrying about revenues.
5. Temporary allowance to use generic video-based communication applications: With the official permission to use generic online communication platforms for virtual consultations, medical care can penetrate deeper and at a faster pace. Physicians and patients need not struggle with choosing the appropriate platform to access medical care via telehealth as and when needed.
• Access healthcare from anywhere: It removes the geographic requirement that the patient is located in a federally defined rural area in order to avail telehealth services. Also, it adds the home of an individual as a qualifying originating site for telehealth services, removing the need to go to a healthcare facility for an online consultation.
• Medicare beneficiaries get relief: Medicare beneficiaries will be able to receive services such as evaluation and management visits, preventive health screenings, and mental health counseling through telehealth. This will ensure that high-risk Medicare beneficiaries can see their doctor right form their homes.
• First-time patients can consult: Patients need not have an existing relationship with providers, enabling first-time patients to consult new doctors.
Telehealth is here to stay and early adaptors can be in an advantageous position as more restrictions are lifted. The bill does not seek to extend the waivers. The security of patients’ medical data will continue to be considered important.
For practices looking to establish telehealth services for the long term that win the confidence of patients, HIPAA and HITECH compliant platforms are essential.
Look out for telehealth platforms for your virtual practice for the long term and assure your patients that their privacy and data are protected as they consult you from the safety and convenience of their own homes.
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