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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.
- Consult with counsel before entering into any outside business relationships.
- Establish guidelines for physical examinations and prescribing practices.
- Monitor the prescribing habits of their physicians and nurse practitioners.
- 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.
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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