Telemedicine for Coronavirus Cleared for Widespread Use
Telemedicine’s moment to shine has arrived. Amidst rising national concern regarding the spread of coronavirus COVID-19—on top of the annual influenza cycle—Congress has passed an emergency spending bill that expands Medicare reimbursement for telemedicine during a public health emergency by loosening restrictions on the permissible locations for patients during the consultation. The Telehealth Services During Certain Emergency Periods Act of 2020 is designed to encourage patients and providers to conduct initial screenings outside of medical facilities; by keeping patients out of hospitals and clinics wherever possible, telemedicine for coronavirus should reduce the opportunities for this infectious illness to spread.
The emergency spending bill waives Medicare’s geographical requirements for telemedicine reimbursement during a public health emergency. Currently, Medicare can only reimburse for telemedicine when the patient is in a rural area and visiting certain designated health facilities (“originating sites”) during the telemedicine consult. Under the new legislation, Medicare will permit telemedicine for coronavirus and other illnesses in both urban and rural regions, and patients are no longer restricted to certain “originating sites;” patients’ homes and other non-traditional sites will qualify as well. In addition, smartphones with audio-visual capabilities will now be considered an acceptable means of healthcare delivery. The reduced restrictions on the use of telemedicine technologies are expected to increase access to care, especially for those who remain home-bound or under quarantine.
The bill, heavily supported by several prominent organizations including the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), the Alliance for Connected Care (ACC), and the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), borrows elements from last fall’s Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act. While the broader CONNECT Act has yet to be approved, this legislation indicates that in principal, Congress has accepted the need for more widespread use of telemedicine. However, the extent of that perceived need—beyond emergency situations—continues to spur debate surrounding the proposed CONNECT for Health Act.
Because the entire United States has been declared as being under a public health emergency regarding the novel coronavirus, all Medicare beneficiaries are now eligible for care via telemedicine, both for suspected coronavirus infection and for other illnesses. Yet with the proliferation of consumer smartphones as conduits for telemedicine, concerns have been raised regarding the privacy and security of health information.
Both Congress and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) have affirmed that the standards set forth in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) remain unchanged, even in emergency situations. Therefore, physicians and healthcare workers must continue to uphold the strict privacy and security requirements outlined in HIPAA. Some industry experts recommend that healthcare providers should implement secure videoconferencing platforms with vendors, with emphasis on maintaining the purity of patients’ health data. In other words, consumer products such as Skype do not meet HIPAA requirements and cannot be used for telemedicine purposes; only HIPAA-compliant systems should be engaged.
As explained by executives from American Well and SOC Telemed, telemedicine is an ideal medium for evaluating isolated patients during an outbreak of infectious illness. With telemedicine for coronavirus available as a triage tool, consumers have easier and faster access to care with less risk of spreading or contracting illness in waiting rooms, and mild cases can be treated at home to reduce the caseload on healthcare facilities. Some consumers are even using telemedicine to address unrelated health issues when the fear of catching flu or coronavirus has prevented them from scheduling an office visit. However, this tool’s true potential has yet to be seen because the adoption of telemedicine is hindered by limited public awareness of the technology, restrictive reimbursement policies, and the lack of integration between telemedicine and electronic health records.
Here at swyMed, we applaud the use of telemedicine for coronavirus, influenza, and other screenings. When a reliable, secure telemedicine platform such as swyMed is deployed, the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship can be preserved while patients receive needed care more quickly in a more contained, more comfortable environment.
To read an advisory from a legal perspective, visit Alston & Bird here.
To learn more about the bill and various organizations’ lobbying efforts, visit mHealthIntelligence here.
To read a sample of the telemedicine industry’s reaction to the coronavirus outbreak and how telemedicine can be of assistance, visit mHealthIntelligence here.
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