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.