Emma J. Chapman is a Law Clerk in the Washington, DC office of McDermott Will & Emery.

Last week, President Trump signed the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act (SUPPORT Act), a bipartisan piece of legislation designed to tackle the opioid crisis by, among other approaches, increasing the use of telemedicine services to treat addiction. Several key provisions are summarized below.

The package includes provisions to expand public reimbursement for telemedicine services that focus on addiction treatment. Specifically, the legislation removes Medicare’s originating site requirement for substance abuse treatment provided via telemedicine, meaning that health professionals can receive Medicare reimbursement even if the patient is not located in a rural area. In addition, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has been directed to issue guidance to states regarding possible ways that Medicaid programs can receive federal reimbursement for treating substance abuse via telemedicine. The legislation explicitly identifies services provided via a hub and spoke model and in school-based health centers, among others, as those that should be eligible for federal reimbursement.

In another development, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is now required to implement regulations regarding a special registration process for telemedicine providers within one year of the passage of the SUPPORT Act. The aim of this process is to expand health providers’ ability to prescribe controlled substances to patients in need of substance use disorder treatment based on a telemedicine consultation, without having to conduct an in-person evaluation first. This special registration process was originally contemplated 10 years ago under the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008 (Ryan Haight Act) as one of the seven pathways through which a telemedicine provider could prescribe a controlled substance to his/her patient without having first conducted an in-person evaluation, but the DEA never issued any regulations to effectuate it. At present, the special registration process and requirements (e.g., registration costs, application processing timeline, provider qualifications) are still largely unknown. The answers to these open issues will determine how accessible this new registration pathway will be to substance use disorder providers and, therefore, how impactful it will be in connecting patients in need of substance use disorder treatment with qualified providers.

In addition to these policy reforms, the SUPPORT Act also directs government agencies to conduct additional research into the possible benefits of telemedicine technology for treating substance abuse. Both CMS and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) are tasked with publishing reports concerning the use of telemedicine technology for treating children: CMS is directed to analyze how to reduce barriers to adopting such technology, and GAO is directed to evaluate how states can increase the number of Medicaid providers that treat substance use disorders via telemedicine in school-based clinics. Furthermore, the Department of Health and Human Services must issue a report regarding the impact of using telemedicine services to treat opioid addiction within five years.

On November 1, 2018, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) issued final rules for updating the 2019 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule to implement recent telehealth-related legislative reforms. As reported in our Digital Health Mid-Year Report: Focus on Medicare, these changes are expected to have a material impact on the ability of providers to receive payment for delivering telehealth services. Certain key changes are highlighted below:

  • Qualified providers may be reimbursed when providing telehealth services for stroke and kidney disease—even when patients are located in their own homes.
  • Qualified providers may receive a small amount of reimbursement for holding “virtual check-in[s]” with patients and when they evaluate recorded video and images from an established patient. CMS noted that these changes are aimed at allowing providers to help determine whether an in-person visit or additional follow-up is needed. Doing so “increase[s] efficiency for practitioners and convenience for beneficiaries.”
  • CMS also issued an interim final rule related to the recently-signed SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation that was passed to combat the opioid crisis. Similar to the Bipartisan Budget Act, the SUPPORT Act removed the originating site requirement for substance abuse and related mental health treatments. There is a 60-day comment period before this rule will be finalized.

Together, these rules represent a substantial expansion of Medicare reimbursement for services provided via telehealth.  For additional guidance on how to interpret and implement these new changes, please contact your regular McDermott attorney.