It’s no secret that COVID-19 has challenged and modified our health care system (especially telehealth) and will most likely continue to do so. There seems to be a lot of conversations about whether or not all of the advances in telehealth are here to stay post pandemic. While we don’t have a definitive answer on that yet, we do know that it’s come a long way over the past 10 years and transitioned from luxury to necessity. Government entities – the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – continue to fund telehealth expansion programs. Pre-pandemic, patients couldn’t use their personal cell phones to communicate with their provider, patients couldn’t utilize telehealth from their homes, providers weren’t able to bill at the same rate as an in-person visit and pharmacists weren’t able to assist patients via telehealth. Berg Insights published a white paper on April 30, 2020 that provides organizations with information concerning how to implement telehealth and why it’s an important tool for clinicians, providers and facilities.
CMS further expanded telehealth services for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and Rural Health Clinics (RHCs). Foley & Lardner’s blog post, COVID-19: CMS Issues Second Round of Groundbreaking, Changes for Telehealth – What You Need to Know, from May 3, 2020 explores CMS’ latest updates. CMS’ latest updates include an expanded list of eligible telehealth practitioners to include physical and occupational therapists and speech language pathologists and a few other specialists to bill Medicare, auto-only telehealth elevated, opioid treatment programs (OTPs) may furnish periodic assessments via phone, Medicare coverage of RHCs and FQHCs provided telehealth, hospital billing and facility fee reimbursement for outpatient and home settings, new telehealth code approval procedure, time-based level selection for E/M telehealth, loosened remote physiological monitoring (RPM) billing requirements, inclusion of telehealth and virtual care in ACO primary care services. CMS’ additional telehealth allowances through the pandemic allows providers to now see their patients through telehealth for additional services, including annual wellness visits.
The telehealth advances aren’t stopping there. The FCC has a goal to further improve the lines of communication. To achieve this goal, FCC has about “$200 million to help healthcare providers launch or expand telehealth programs during the pandemic and another $100 million to expand connected health programs to rural areas over the next three years.” In an effort to increase telehealth capabilities in response to the pandemic, HHS, through HRSA, awarded $15 million to 159 organizations across five health care programs on May 13, 2020. HRSA made the awards based on the organization’s capacity to implement COVID-19 telehealth activities that train high-demand professions – such as students, physicians, nurses, physician assistants, allied health, etc. – across the health care team.
Congress has a new bill, The Improving Telehealth for Underserved Communities Act (HR 6792), to review. The bill addresses reimbursing FQHCs and RHCs for telehealth and looks at reducing the amount of paperwork associated with telehealth visits. A win for providers utilizing telehealth.