by Josh Scales, Manager/Healthcare Consultant at LBMC

Since the emergence of the COVID-19 virus, healthcare providers across the country have rallied together to stop the spread of the virus. For providers, telehealth has been a very important tool when managing the care of those who have been infected, minimizing exposure during this national and global emergency. 

In response to this pandemic, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has temporarily eased some of the HIPAA restrictions. This was done to give organizations the ability to use non-public facing applications to administer telehealth visits. This is essential because some organizations do not have the time to properly source a telehealth vendor, due to the rapid acceleration of the virus and growing demand of care.

This change allows organizations to use apps like Facetime, Skype, and Google Hangouts, among others, to communicate and provide telehealth visits. The OCR stated that they will not impose penalties for noncompliance with HIPPA requirements during this time, but they did urge providers to educate their patients on privacy risk. Public-facing apps like Facebook Live, Instagram Live, and TikTok are prohibited and cannot be used by providers for virtual visits.

CMS has also expanded telehealth coverage, through the enactment of waiver 1135. This enactment removes geographical and regulatory restrictions and allows payment to physicians regardless of the diagnosis or location of the patient. Private payers have followed suit by expanding their telehealth coverage and removing restrictions for reimbursement. Many have waived copays and/or offered free virtual visits in the wake of this epidemic. Thirty-five states have also waived provider licensing restrictions to allow providers to care for patients across state lines as necessary. Licensing has been one of the biggest roadblocks for telehealth, in the past few years. These changes have mobilized telehealth and increased care access expansion on a massive scale.

What Next?

One thing is for certain, telehealth is here to stay. It’s clear that telehealth is an efficient and viable tool that can be used to provide quality care to patients at scale. Time will tell if our government, states, and the private payers grasp the importance of the technology. The hope is that they release permanent changes to remove major barriers and provide more reimbursement than they have in the pre-COVID-19 world.  With or without the changes, organizations must move forward with implementing and operationalizing a telehealth program. The demand for virtual health will continue to grow beyond COVID-19. Organizations must be prepared to engage and consult with patients outside of the four walls of their facilities.