As we’ve noted previously, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust telemedicine into the spotlight with pro tem lifted telemedicine regulation, allowing both patients and providers to embrace low-contact methods for accessing healthcare. Now, several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, industry stakeholders are examining the currently active telemedicine regulations to determine which changes would encourage medical facilities and providers, ranging from small-practice primary care providers to tertiary care hospitals, to permanently add telemedicine to their routine options for health care delivery. Some small changes have already been approved, but critics worry that these updates are too limited to compel providers to continue using telemedicine after the pandemic dwindles.
History shows that the medical industry has been slow to adopt telemedicine, largely due to cumbersome laws and regulations that have made telemedicine financially infeasible for most providers as a standard method for healthcare delivery. When legislators hurriedly eased restrictions on telemedicine usage early in the pandemic, patients and providers alike discovered several advantages that simply made sense, such as convenience, time savings, reduced exposure to infectious illnesses, and a more manageable workload. Many industry experts believe that patients, now accustomed to the ease of using telemedicine, will maintain high demand for such services beyond the purview of the pandemic; as a result, the possibility of returning to pre-pandemic limitations appears untenable.
As legislators deliberate on revisions of telemedicine regulations, many stakeholders are emerging as staunch supporters of continuing telemedicine at its highest-ever rates. The American Medical Association, American Hospital Association, and Connected Health Initiative are reaching out to legislators for support for directives which encourage the continued use of telemedicine. So far, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) seem amenable to updating telemedicine regulations for this purpose, as shown by their proposed changes in CPT codes for 2021.
Meanwhile, nearly two dozen proposed federal bills, aimed at encouraging providers and patients to continue using telemedicine after the pandemic ends, hope to transform the temporarily eased telemedicine regulations—which enabled telemedicine adoption to skyrocket—into permanent law. These bills address critical factors and barriers to telemedicine such as reimbursement, redefining what qualifies as an “originating site,” permitting providers to prescribe medications (including Medication Assisted Therapies) via telemedicine without first requiring an in-person visit, and allocating funds to upgrade broadband infrastructure. Some of the proposals call for studies analyzing the effects of turning to telemedicine during the pandemic. In addition, many state governors have issued executive orders designed to make the temporarily eased restrictions permanent.
At this point, while the pandemic shows no signs of drawing to a close in the near future, we should take advantage of the temporarily relaxed rules concerning telemedicine and urge legislators and decision-makers to take action to preserve the changes that have been shown to enable the continued, and perhaps even extended, use of telemedicine for the future—with or without a pandemic.