Posted on May 20, 2020, 6 p.m.
The COVID-19 outbreak has not only disrupted daily life across the globe, but the contemporary healthcare model as well, with an urgently needed shift to digital medical solutions. Federal regulations are changing continuously, insurance coverage has greatly expanded, and the use of telemedicine is growing at a tremendous rate assisted by new policies and a widespread loosening of restrictions previously impeding access to care.
As part of the battle against the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) have expanded access to Medicare telehealth services on a temporary and emergency basis and lessened HIPAA enforcement effective as of March 6, 2020. These updates offer Medicare beneficiaries – many of whom are at an increased risk for serious COVID-19 illness – a safe, alternative model of care in the form of a wider range of remote services. During the COVID-19 crisis, innovative uses of telemedicine technology are driving routine care, keeping vulnerable demographics safe, and expanding access to health care.
“The benefits are part of the broader effort by CMS and the White House Task Force to ensure that all Americans – particularly those at high-risk of complications from the virus that causes the disease COVID-19 – are aware of easy-to-use, accessible benefits that can help keep them healthy while helping to contain the community spread of this virus,” a statement from the CMS on the promotion of telemedicine reads. Further information about the newly implemented guidelines for patient care and their implications on telehealth services during the COVID-19 outbreak are outlined below.
Expansion of Telehealth Services
As part of the program, the 1135 waiver was introduced to lessen prior restrictions and promote wider access to remote care. Prior to the waiver, Medicare was only able to pay for telehealth on a limited basis, for example, when a patient was receiving care in a designated rural area or when received the service in a healthcare facility. Under this waiver, the following changes have taken effect:
- Office, hospital, and other telehealth visits will now be covered and reimbursed for the same amount as an in-person visit.
- A wide range of providers can offer telehealth services across the nation, including nurse practitioners, psychologists, and licensed social workers.
- Medicare beneficiaries are now able to receive a wider variety of services through telemedicine – such as evaluation and management visits, mental health counseling, and preventative health screenings.
- The HHS Office of Inspector General is providing flexibility for healthcare providers to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits paid by federal healthcare programs during this time.
Medical professionals can provide their Medicare patients with a range of virtual services as part of the telehealth program, including Medicare telehealth visits, virtual check-ins, and e-visits. Specific requirements for each service are outlined below.
Medicare Telehealth Visits
Throughout the course of the COVID-19 outbreak, Medicare patients may use digital technology for office, hospital visits, and other services previously rendered in-person. The recent changes include:
- A wider range of practitioners is now able to get payment covered for telemedicine services – including physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, midwives, anesthetists, psychologists, clinical social workers, registered dietitians, as well as nutritional professionals.
- Virtual visits will now be paid at the same rate as regular, in-person visits.
- Providers must use an interactive audio and video system permitting real-time communication during Medicare telehealth visits in order to be reimbursed appropriately.
- New CMS guidelines remove the requirement of an established patient-provider relationship for the duration of the public health emergency, further details below.
“The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is announcing a policy of enforcement discretion for Medicare telehealth services furnished pursuant to the waiver under section 1135(b)(8) of the Act. To the extent the waiver (section 1135(g)(3)) requires that the patient have a prior established relationship with a particular practitioner, HHS will not conduct audits to ensure that such a prior relationship existed for claims submitted during this public health emergency,” the CMS statement reads.
In all areas of the country, Medicare beneficiaries will be able to have brief online check-ins with practitioners – or brief communication technology-based services. Policy changes related to this include:
- Medicare will now pay for virtual check-ins for patients with established relationships with their physicians to prevent unnecessary travel and office visits.
- Brief virtual check-ins can be conducted using a broader range of communication methods than Medicare telehealth visits; medical practitioners may bill for virtual check-in services provided via several telecommunication technologies – including telephone, audio/video, secure text messaging, email, and patient portals.
- Services cannot be related to a medical visit within the previous 7 days or lead to a medical visit within the following 24 hours, or the soonest available appointment.
- Patients must verbally consent to receive virtual check-in services.
- Patients can submit video/images using store and forward methods to be interpreted by physicians within 24 business hours.
As part of the updated guidelines, established Medicare patients in all types of locations can have non-face-to-face patient-initiated communications with their providers using online patient portals. These services can only be rendered in accordance with the following guidelines:
- E-visit services can only be reported to Medicare if the billing practice has an established relationship with the patient.
- E-visits must be initiated by the patient although practices may educate patients on the availability of these services prior to their initiation.
- Communications can occur over a 7-day period and only after the patient provides verbal consent to receive telehealth services.
- These services may be billed using CPT codes 99421-99423 and HCPCS codes G2061.
More information on relevant billing codes for e-visits and other virtual care services can be found on the CMS’ website.
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Updates
In addition to the amendments above, the HHS Office for Civil Rights will lessen restrictions and waive penalties in association with HIPAA compliance for health care providers that serve patients in good faith through virtual communication technologies during the COVID-19 outbreak. More information on the latest HIPAA updates can be accessed here.
Although Medicare already offers flexibility to states that wish to implement telehealth services, the most recent developments signal a major step forward in the direction of telemedicine, despite the temporary nature of federal guidelines. With the help of changes in regulations and the strategic expansion of telehealth, patients can now reach providers easily via a range of telecommunication options from the comfort and safety of their homes, while medical professionals can readily provide care without reimbursement concerns. As the COVID-19 public health emergency continues to evolve rapidly, regulations and guidelines may change; clinicians are encouraged to stay up-to-date on the latest medical guidance.
Article courtesy of The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M)
Written by: Zuzanna Walter.
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This article is not intended to provide medical diagnosis, advice, treatment, or endorsement.