Is telehealth getting a new lease on life?

6 PHE-Related Waivers

Through 2019, telehealth was mainly for rural patients living far from healthcare providers. Then came COVID and the Public Health Emergency (PHE) declaration from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Since 2020, a series of rolling 90-day waivers opened telehealth to everyone, temporarily. 

Thanks to a recent surge in COVID cases, the current PHE extends to October 2022. When it ends, so does CMS’s authority to continue telehealth’s expended capabilities (unless there’s a further extension). That’s why Congress stepped in. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, which became law March 15, extends telehealth’s lifespan by five months (151 days, to be specific) after the PHE expires. (Related: Six key steps to reduce the impact of telehealth audits

That means telehealth is alive and well at least through year’s end. So are many of the PHE-related coverage flexibilities. Here are some of the highlights: 

  • Telehealth from anywhere Before the PHE, Medicare covered only services delivered to patients at hospitals and other provider facilities. The Act redefines “originating site” to mean “any site in the United States at which the eligible telehealth individual is located at the time the service is furnished.” This could be patients’ homes, their cars – anywhere with phone or Wi-Fi connectivity. 
  • More practitioners In addition to physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other specialized providers, occupational and physical therapists’, speech language pathologists’ and audiologists’ services will be covered. 
  • Payment for audio-only services will continue for 151 days after the PHE ends. 
  • Relaxed in-person mental health services requirement The waivers ensure that the requirement that mental health patients have in-person visits of the first telehealth visit and every 12 months afterwards won’t take effect until the 152nd day after the PHE ends. 
  • Reinstated first-dollar coverage Until the end of 2021, telehealth services to High Deductible Health Plan and Health Savings Account patients were not subject to plan deductibles. The new law reinstated this relief through December 31 of this year. 
  • More data transparency The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission is required to analyze telehealth utilization, expenditures, payment policies, and implications on access to and quality of patient care. Starting July 1, the HHS Secretary must publicly post quarterly telehealth utilization data. 

For more lasting, but not permanent, relief, the bipartisan Telehealth Extension and Evaluation Act, which would extend the telehealth waivers for two years, is inching its way through Congress. 

If all the flux and uncertainty at the federal level weren’t enough, there’s also the state level. As I posted almost a year ago, the states have their own telehealth coverage, reimbursement, and privacy regulations. For now, patients and providers can continue on through at least the end of 2022 with access to telehealth. Beyond that, healthcare organizations are working hard to future proof their approach to telehealth. Stay tuned! 

Read how one health system created a scalable repeatable process to address regulatory changes during the PHE. The hospital system is now fully prepared to revert those changes or update them to the new requirements. 

Get a personal tour of YouCompli.

  

Growth in Telemedicine Could Mean Trouble if You Are Not Careful

We can all agree that 2020 was a year filled with surprises. The emergence of COVID-19 brought restrictions, which made the business of healthcare even more challenging. But then came the saving grace: telemedicine!

Even though telemedicine has been around in some form since the 1900s, its popularity exploded during the midst of the pandemic. With millions of people stuck indoors due to government lockdowns, health care providers turned to telemedicine options to provide desperately needed health care.

According to Doximity, a social media networking service for medical professionals, only 14 percent of Americans utilized telemedicine before the pandemic. But since the outbreak, telemedicine usage skyrocketed by 57 percent. Among patients suffering from chronic conditions, the number of virtual care visits increased by a staggering 77 percent!

The increase in telemedicine accessibility also means healthcare providers can potentially face compliance issue pitfalls, which could land them in trouble with the United States government. Before COVID-19 became a household name, Medicare and Medicaid upheld strict rules regarding payment for telemedicine services. For instance, reimbursement for telemedicine services was limited to patients residing in areas of the country with limited healthcare.In an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, government payors loosened these restrictions.

Unfortunately, telehealth services’ widespread use brought an uptick in COVID-19 related scams that specifically target healthcare providers offering this service. Such illegal activity caught the attention of the Department of Justice (D.O.J.).

A primary focus of the D.O.J. is a government agency that mostly focuses on telehealth arrangements that implicate the Anti-Kickback Statute.  The statute forbids transactions designed to corrupt medical judgment by rewarding referrals for Medicaid and Medicare services. In the past year, more than $4.5 billion in false claims were connected to telemedicine. And over 100 healthcare professionals were charged with submitting fraudulent claims to Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance companies.

New changes to the Stark and Anti-Kickback Statutes that were long in the works took effect on January 19, 2021. The regulation updates are designed to eliminate regulatory and administrative barriers that hindered movement towards a value-based health care system. The updated rules also offer healthcare providers more flexibility to coordinate and improve patient care while maintaining safeguards against overutilization and inappropriate incentives.

The Stark Exceptions finalized three new exceptions for value-based arrangements between healthcare providers and payor systems like Medicaid and Medicare. These exemptions are solely based on the quality of delivered patient care instead of the volume of services.  For example, healthcare providers face at least a 10 percent financial risk for failure to achieve value-based goals. In comparison, the Anti-Kickback Statute requires at least a 5 percent financial risk for value-based arrangements.

Physicians’ practices should express caution when offering telemedicine services to steer clear of trouble with the government. As with traditional in-person healthcare, it’s best to avoid doing business with third-party companies that give money in exchange for referrals.

Here are a few guidelines physicians should consider avoiding getting on the D.O.J.’s naughty list.

  1. Consult with counsel before entering into any outside business relationships.
  2. Establish guidelines for physical examinations and prescribing practices.
  3. Monitor the prescribing habits of their physicians and nurse practitioners.
  4. Adopt data analytic tools to identify any abnormal billing behavior.

Physicians considering telemedicine should also consider the following tips to stay compliant.

Practicing Telemedicine Across State Lines.

Usually, state governments require practicing physicians to conduct telemedicine sessions within the state they are licensed. But in some states, this stipulation is relaxed due to COVID-19 to make healthcare more accessible. But physicians must contact their state’s medical board for updated information concerning this topic.

Informed Consent.

Healthcare providers are still expected to obtain consent before providing telehealth services. Besides requesting written or verbal consent from patients, providers should make patients aware of the risks and benefits of receiving telehealth services.

Use Caution When Prescribing Medication.

Because of COVID-19, the Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.) allows registered practitioners to use prescribed medication to patients via telemedcicine technology. Physicians must adhere to the following conditions:

  • Prescribed medication(s) must be for a legitimate medical purpose.
  • The telehealth session is conducted using a two-way, audio-visual, interactive communication system.
  • The practitioners must practice healthcare within Federal and State law.

Only time will tell whether or not telemedicine will continue to grow in the upcoming months. But doctors should continue to use caution when using this technology to serve the public.

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Collaboration Between Compliance and Risk: What is Permissible?

Compliance departments, generally speaking, guide staff and boards of directors to comply with the requirements, laws and regulations that govern the organization’s business. They also monitor for compliance via internal audits.  Risk departments, on the other hand, address ways to mitigate risk to an organization through such activities as the evaluation and purchase of insurance policies.  Given the broad nature of the scope of these two departments within the organization, when is compliance and risk collaboration permissible?

Possible collaborations

  1. Strategic planning: Collaboration here should include not only compliance and risk but the entire organization and the board of directors, if applicable.
  2. Disaster response and business continuity: As with strategic planning, disaster response and business continuity planning should also involve input and collaboration from all departments in the organization.
  3. General security and privacy : Here the compliance/privacy officer, information technology/security officer, and risk management director should all be included in the planning.
  4. Known security threat and/or breach incident: Compliance, information technology (IT), and risk management would all participate in mitigating a security threat or breach incident on the organization. Each would provide input and guidance on their respective areas of knowledge.
  5. Risk assessments, gap analysis and mitigation plans: Again, the development of these plans should include leaders from the entire organization; moreover, compliance and risk would specifically collaborate on the assessment, analysis and mitigation activities.
  6. General policy development: Compliance and risk staff can collaborate and provide feedback and input for all organization policies.
  7. Record and document retention schedule: Here compliance and risk can collaborate with legal counsel to ensure record and document retention policies comply with state and federal laws.
  8. Staff education: This is an area where compliance and risk can collaborate to provide training, whether it is done in person, virtually, by email or via online course.

Collaborations to vet and evaluate permissibility

  1. Security breach: As noted above, compliance, IT, and risk will work together once a security breach has been identified. It is important to ensure compliance addresses HIPAA related information and potential reporting requirements; IT evaluates the technical aspects of the breach; and risk focuses on reporting to the insurance carrier and mitigation strategies in conjunction with compliance and IT. These collaborative activities will usually take place under a breach coach or law firm to protect the confidential nature of the breach.
  2. Shared work areas: Depending on the confidential nature of discussions, say a lawsuit against the organization, it may or may not be appropriate for compliance staff to be privy to such information. So shared work areas should be closely evaluated.
  3. Shared staff: As with shared work areas, if a staff member such as a registered nurse (RN) is shared between the compliance and risk department, both leaders and the RN must remain in the scope of the job role in which they are working at the time.
  4. Reporting to the board: Typically, compliance reports to the organization’s leader (such as a CEO) but also has direct or dotted line reporting to the board of directors. Make sure any collaborations with other departments do not create potential conflicts of interest with reporting up this chain of command.
  5. Committee membership: As with the analysis discussed above, make sure to vet compliance staff member membership on the risk committee and vice versa to avoid any actual or potential conflicts of interest.

Goal

All organizations should work to develop a culture where permissible collaborations between compliance and risk occur. They should also make certain that staff feel comfortable calling the compliance or risk department with potential concerns while ensuring the staff not crossing any lines when it comes to compliance or risk department confidential matters or conflicts of interest.

PRACTICE TIP:

  1. Evaluate opportunities for the compliance department to collaborate with the risk management team, as noted above.
  2. Access youCompli to find resources which address required document and record retention requirements.

Denise Atwood, RN, JD, CPHRM

District Medical Group (DMG), Inc., Chief Risk Officer and Denise Atwood, PLLC

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article or blog are the author’s and do not represent the opinions of DMG.

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Emergency Preparedness Revisited

Emergency preparedness has always been one of the top concerns of hospital administrators and medical staff, but never has it been more critical. As the the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact the United States, and facilities are struggling to maintain levels of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators, administrators and compliance professionals should also review the updated federal emergency preparedness requirements, published by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in the Federal Register on September 30, 2019.

We previously blogged about these requirements in 2017, but the requirements have changed in the past few years. Here are the four core elements of a hospital’s emergency preparedness plan to handle natural and man-made disasters — and a look at how they are impacted by last year’s final rule revision by CMS:

Risk Assessment and Planning

Commonly referred to as the emergency plan, CMS requires such a strategy to be developed and then updated at least once a year. It is based on certain risk assessments and uses an “all-hazards” approach that focuses on hospital capacities and capabilities, care-related emergencies, equipment and power failures, communication interruptions (including cyberattacks), and interruptions to water, food, and medication supply chains.

A major change to this element involves hospital climate control and power. Facilities are no longer required to heat and cool the building evenly. However, safe temperatures are to be maintained in areas deemed necessary to protect patients, other people in the facility, and provisions stored in the facility during the course of an emergency, as determined by a risk assessment. If a hospital is unable to maintain safe temperatures, it should follow an established plan for a timely relocation/evacuation that avoids patient exposure to harmful conditions. Additionally, hospitals are required to have an essential electric system with a generator that complies with the NFPA 99 – Health Care Facilities Code.

Like before, the plan must include strategies for addressing emergency events and include a process to work in conjunction with local, tribal, regional, state, and federal emergency preparedness officials. But the key change to the all-hazards approach — and this is crucial in light of recent events — is that all participating hospitals must be prepared for emerging infectious disease (EID) threats, such as the coronavirus. EIDs may require modification to standard facility protocols to protect the health and safety of patients and personnel, such as isolation and PPE usage.

Communication Plan

This element received additional fine-tuning. Participating hospitals still must develop a communication plan that complies with local, state, and federal laws and the plan must be reviewed and updated annually. It should now also include the names and contact information of key hospital personnel for local, tribal, regional, state, and federal emergency preparedness officials. And, it should detail how patient care is coordinated within the facility, across healthcare providers, and with local and state public health departments and emergency management systems.

Policies and Procedures

Hospital policies and procedures still must be based on the emergency plan, risk assessment, and the communication plan, and must be reviewed and updated at least once a year. They should address a broad range of topics and situations, including subsistence needs (water, food, medical supplies) of patients and staff, emergency staffing strategies, tracking the location of on-duty staff and patients during emergencies, sheltering-in-place plans, and patient relocation/evacuation plans.

Training and Testing Program

This revised element the result of an additive process. Program development is based on the emergency plan, the risk assessment, the communication plan, and the policies and procedures. As before, the final rule states the program must detail who needs to be trained, describe the frequency of training, how knowledge is assessed, and document how the training was conducted.

During the course of normal events, hospitals are required to annually conduct a mock disaster drill that is either a full-scale, community-based or individual facility-based exercise. In addition, hospitals must also hold a discussion-based tabletop exercise with its senior staff to discuss hypothetical emergency scenarios and reassess policies and procedures. But recent years have not been normal.

Along with the coronavirus outbreak, many parts of the country have suffered from an increase in natural disasters or mass shootings. The final rule revision acknowledges this wide spectrum of emergencies. If there is an event that activates a hospital’s emergency plan, that facility is exempt from holding its annual mock disaster drill for one year following the incident, provided it has written documentation. If a hospital activates its emergency plan twice in one year, it is exempt from both the mock disaster drill and tabletop exercise for one year following the actual events. Again, written documentation of these events and procedures is required.

Maintain Compliance with CMS

Being compliant with the September 30, 2019 final rule is a requirement for your facility’s Condition of Participation (CoP) / Condition for Certification (CfC) with CMS. Failure to comply, even during a pandemic, could thus have significant impact on your organization. The youCompli compliance management software is a powerful tool to help mitigate risk and enable your hospital to effectively implement these, and many other, regulatory requirements. The software is easy to use and quick to deploy, and can be a powerful means to drive efficiencies through your compliance department.

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