Telehealth has been seen as an opportunity to improve the healthcare system for many years.  The technologies that enable connected health solutions such as virtual visits, remote patient monitoring, and other forms of digital patient-physician engagement can provide new opportunities for treating patients, increasing access to needed services, and reducing friction and inefficiency in the healthcare system.  Despite the potential benefits, growth has been slow until 2020, when an unprecedented health crisis created an immediate need for increased adoption.

Scaling Back Telehealth Legislation and Restrictions

As a result, government agencies acted quickly to scale back many of the restrictions that had previously created obstacles to widespread use of telehealth services.  The result was a significant increase in usage, as well as a shift in both patient and provider attitudes towards telehealth.  Following their experiences, more than three-quarters of patients who used telehealth were satisfied with the service or care they received.  In addition, more than half of providers now view telehealth more favorably and are more comfortable using the digital health tools to which they have access.

The question that remains is, with the sudden emergence of telehealth as an accepted alternative to traditional care, how can the growth the industry has seen become a permanent fixture in healthcare delivery?

Having seen the momentum, positive response, and benefits, the good news is that many government officials and entities have strongly supported the expansion of many of the temporary telehealth legislation and provisions to permanent status.

FTC Supports Expanded Telehealth Coverage

In a letter to CMS, the FTC suggested that, by making many of the changes permanent, telehealth could help reduce the impact of physician shortages and provide more access to healthcare services, especially those due to geographical challenges, mobility concerns, and socioeconomic disparities.  The FTC focused on several key areas, including:

        • Geographic restrictions
        • Expansion of reimbursable services
        • Therapy services
        • Coverage for new modalities of care
        • New patient requirements
        • Guidelines for supervisory staff

AMA Approaches Congressional Leadership

Along with more than 70 other healthcare-related organizations, the AMA urged both houses of Congress to amend restrictive telehealth legislation to ensure the temporary access to telehealth services become permanent.  Allowing the restrictions to resume and removing access to the services telehealth has enabled once the Public Health Emergency ends “would be a grave mistake for patients, providers, and government,” the AMA says.

Senatorial Advocates

In a letter to Senate leaders, 30 senators asked for support in making provisions from the CONNECT for Health Act permanent as a means of expanding access to care, reducing healthcare costs, and driving better outcomes.  “We have all heard from our constituents about how effective and convenient it is,” the senators noted in asking for permanent Medicare coverage of telehealth with appropriate safeguards to prevent misuse and fraud, while ensuring the investments providers have made in telehealth become a positive long-term investment for continued revenue and healthcare delivery.

Is there Federal Legislation on Telehealth or Telemedicine?

In a significant step recognizing the potential for telehealth in the future of healthcare, several bills have been introduced to help pave the way for permanent changes to telehealth regulations.  These include:

        • R.7233 – KEEP Telehealth Options Act of 2020 – which would require HHS to conduct a comprehensive study on telehealth services, new provider reimbursement options, adoption of services, demographic and socioeconomic analysis, telehealth services for mental and behavioral health, and a review of the public health impacts of telehealth expansion. The report would serve as a key source of information for Congressional action on the permanent expansion of telehealth.
        • R.7078 ­– EDOT Act of 2020 – which would mandate that HHS will study and report on the impact of telehealth on care access and outcomes during the pandemic to help ensure access to connected health services beyond the pandemic.

HELP Committee Hearing

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing in which several witnesses testified to the positive impact the expansion of telehealth services has had and how the lessons learned in 2020 can be applied permanently to increase access to and quality of care.  Among many witnesses, ATA president Joseph Kvedar noted that, “Over these past few months, Members of Congress, regulators, patients, and providers across the country have witnessed a reality that the ATA, its members, and I have known for decades: telehealth works.”  He called for action to ensure HHS and CMS have the ability to support virtual care as part of a 21st Century healthcare model.

Reporting Requirement Updates

The AMA and CMS have announced a major overhaul of CPT codes going into effect in 2021 designed to reduce the administrative burden on physicians and free up more time to see patients, while helping reduce burnout and stress.  The changes reflect the need for new documentation rules in a digital world and apply specifically to telehealth-related codes 99201-99215.

Across the board, government agencies and individuals have seen the positive impact of telehealth, particularly as its use has significantly increased this year due to extreme circumstances.  As a result, these and other actions are being taken to solidify the availability of connected health services into the future and usher in a new era of healthcare that can provide high quality care more conveniently which reducing the burden on providers.

To learn more about why connected health is poised to become the new normal of healthcare, connect with us today.

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