The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Department of Health and Human Services have announced policy changes for remote telehealth communications during the COVID-19 public health emergency in order to maintain the delivery of healthcare while protecting those most at risk.
In early March, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) vastly expanded the range of remote telehealth services available to Medicare beneficiaries in order to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for both patients and healthcare providers.
Prior to the expansion, Medicare payments for telehealth services were limited to special circumstances and “virtual check-ins”; but now healthcare providers are allowed to offer remote services such as wellness visits, medication consultations, eye examinations, and mental health counseling.
The expansion of telehealth services has resulted in several policy changes for remote telehealth communication, which - it is important to note - are temporary, likely to change at short notice, and in some cases subject to the cooperation of state governments and insurance issuers.
CMS Policy Changes for Remote Telehealth Communications
The CMS policy changes not only relate to the nature of services listed above, but also who can receive telehealth services, who can provide telehealth services, and where they can be provided. For example, healthcare professionals can provide remote consultations with both existing and new patients.
The range of healthcare professionals eligible to provide remote telehealth communications has also been expanded to include Federally Qualified Health Centers and Rural Health Clinics, plus doctors will be able to provide services across state lines subject to states modifying their own telehealth policies.
The locations to which telehealth services can be provided have also been extended to include patients' own homes. Previously, in the majority of circumstances, only patients in rural areas could receive telehealth services from a doctor, and only then if they travelled to a local medical facility.
HHS Policy Changes for Remote Telehealth Communications
The policy changes made by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) relate to enforcement of the Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the discretion the agency will use when imposing penalties for breaches of HIPAA during the public health emergency.
The area in which the agency will most use its discretion is in the use of non-compliant technology to communicate with patients - many of whom will not have access to HIPAA-compliant audio and visual communication tools. However, it will still be necessary for Covered Entities to enter into a Business Associate Agreement with the technology providers before being able to use tools such as:
- Microsoft Teams
- Skype for Business
- Zoom for Healthcare
- Google G-Suite Hangouts
- Amazon Chime
- Apple Facetime
- Facebook Messenger
While discretion will not be applied to breaches of HIPAA involving public-facing platforms such as Facebook Live, Twitch, and Tik Tok, the policy changes apply to all treatments that can be consulted on remotely (i.e. sprained ankles, dental checkups, psychological evaluations, etc.) and are not limited to the examination of a patient displaying symptoms of COVID-19 coronavirus.
Other Policy Changes during the Public Health Emergency
In addition to the policy changes mentioned above, the CMS is allowing insurance issuers to amend healthcare plan benefits mid-term in order to provide or expand coverage for remote telehealth services. The CMS is also allowing issuers to reduce or eliminate cost-sharing for such services.
The HHS Office of Inspector General is also allowing healthcare providers to be flexible in reducing or waiving cost-sharing, and has published a fact sheet to help explain the implications of this policy change to Medicare beneficiaries and healthcare providers.
If you would like further advice about the policy changes for remote telehealth communications, or information about using Rave Mobile Safety communication tools during the COVID-19 public health emergency, do not hesitate to get in touch and speak with our communication experts.
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