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.

As previously noted in our Digital Health Mid-Year Review, 2018 has seen greater acceptance of telemedicine within the Medicare program. Both regulatory and statutory changes have expanded reimbursement opportunities and, consequentially, opportunities for the deployment of telemedicine technologies. As we noted then, however, improvement in the Medicare reimbursement environment for telemedicine services has been tied to a policy goal of not increasing utilization unnecessarily. We noted in our Mid-Year Review that Congress appears to be following MedPac’s recent guidance that Congress “should take a measured approach to further incorporating telehealth into Medicare by evaluating individual telehealth services to assess their capacity to address. . . cost reduction, access expansion, and quality improvement.”

The recently introduced Reducing Unnecessary Senior Hospitalizations Act of 2018 (the RUSH Act), seems to deviate from MedPac’s suggested approach. The RUSH Act seeks to avoid hospitalizations through a program that creates financial incentives for providing certain nonsurgical services furnished by hospital emergency departments at skilled nursing facilities that are qualified to provide such services by the Secretary of Health and Human Services The RUSH Act specifically refers to the possibility that some of these services could be provided by licensed practitioners “through the use of telehealth.” Interestingly, the RUSH Act does not specify what telehealth services should be allowable or how they should be reimbursed; rather, the RUSH Act leaves these matters for agency determination.

According to Representative Diane Black (TN), one of the bill’s sponsors, “[t]here are companies who are ready and able to provide this innovative care. . . . These positive disruptors just need Medicare’s payment policies to catch up with the technology. . . giving [nursing homes] the technology-enabled tools needed to lower health care costs and, most importantly, save lives.”

As an observer of this industry, I tend to agree with this claim, but under the approach taken by this bill, that determination will need to be made by the Department of Health and Human Services. Digital health companies looking for a better reimbursement environment are well-advised to focus on the bottom line of federal health policy–lower cost, improved care and increased access.

On February 9, 2018 after a brief shutdown, Congress passed and President Trump signed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, a two-year budget agreement that includes funding for the operation of the federal government until March 23, 2018. The law includes significant health care policy changes impacting Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health agencies. In addition to raising federal spending caps enacted in the Budget Control Act of 2011, this legislation includes additional spending for health care priorities. Here we break down some of the changes affecting telehealth.

Expanded Access to Telehealth Stroke Services

The new law expands, beginning in 2019, the ability of patients presenting with stroke symptoms at hospitals or mobile stroke units to receive a timely telehealth consultation with a neurologist in order to determine the best course of treatment. The provision eliminates the current geographic restriction that limits originating sites to rural areas, meaning distant site providers delivering telestroke services could receive a professional fee for delivering the consultation to patients located anywhere in the United States, provided that the other Medicare telehealth coverage requirements are satisfied (e.g., type of provider, type of technology). Continue Reading Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 Includes Significant Changes in Medicare, Other Federal Health Programs

On January 30, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a surge of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and investigators over the coming month and a half, focused on pharmacies and prescribers who are dispensing unusual or disproportionate amounts of opioid drugs. The DEA will examine distribution and inventory data reported to the DEA by prescription drug manufacturers and distributors for “patterns” and “outliers” for further investigation.

Read the full On the Subject.

A lot of us have argued that one of the floodgates for telemedicine has been reimbursement. If states and the Federal government more liberally reimbursed or required reimbursement for telemedicine service, we argue then a significant barrier to broader telemedicine will be removed. This is a valid argument, and the potential flurry of activity on Capitol Hill as of this writing (September 20, 2017) gives many hope that Medicare reimbursement for telemedicine may be greatly expanded soon.

Alas, another problem persists. A spate of recent surveys and reports on utilization demonstrate that awareness should be viewed as a similar sort of barrier. It is, of course, a generalization to say this, but consumers are largely unaware of the benefit being made available to them, or are unaware of the appropriate uses of a telemedicine service. It would be foolish to speculate as to the reasons why, but a recent trend may help to erode this barrier.

When it comes to customer service and user engagement, none are better than our technology industry. The West Coast tech giants clearly understand how to engage and attract users. The remarkable success of smart phones provides ample evidence—can you think of any other consumer product of comparably high-cost being as ubiquitous? It is also clear that the health care industry has failed to engage consumers as effectively. There are likely multiple reasons for this. Health care is: (1) highly regulated, resulting in limited ability to be quickly responsive to consumer demands; (2) run by professionals trained in many things, but not sales or consumer satisfaction and engagement; and (3) burdened both by a lack of competition at the point of sale, and by a third-party payment system that has so far proven to be impervious to the forces of disintermediation. Continue Reading The Way Forward for Telemedicine

On May 31, 2017, the US Department of Justice announced a Settlement Agreement under which eClinicalWorks, a vendor of electronic health record software, agreed to pay $155 million and enter into a five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement to resolve allegations that it caused its customers to submit false claims for Medicare and Medicaid meaningful use payments in violation of the False Claims Act.

Read the full article.

On May 3, 2017, the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies for Health Act of 2017 (S. 1016) (CONNECT Act of 2017) was reintroduced by the same six senators who had initially introduced the legislation in early 2016 and referred to the Senate Committee on Finance. As we previously reported on February 29, 2016, this iteration of the proposed bill also focuses on promoting cost savings and quality care under the Medicare program through the use of telehealth and remote patient monitoring (RPM) services, and incentivizing such digital health technologies by expanding coverage for them under the Medicare program—albeit using different terminology. Chiefly, the CONNECT Act of 2017 serves as a way to expand telehealth and RPM for Medicare beneficiaries, makes it easier for patients to connect with their health care providers and helps reduce costs for patients and providers. As with the previous iteration, the CONNECT Act of 2017 has received statements of support from over 50 organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Telemedicine Association, Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, Connected Health Initiative, Federation of State Medical Boards, National Coalition on Health Care and an array of vendors and health systems. Continue Reading Round Two: Significant Telehealth Expansion Re-Proposed in Bipartisan Senate Bill

The Electronic Health Records (EHR) Incentive Program run by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) garnered attention again last week following the release of a report by the Office of Inspector General of the US Department of Health and Human Services (OIG) describing inappropriate payments to physicians under the program. The report follows on the heels of a high-profile settlement under the False Claims Act between the US Department of Justice and an EHR vendor related to certified electronic health record technology (CEHRT) used in the EHR Incentive Program (which we’ve previously discussed in-depth).

The OIG reviewed payments to 100 eligible professionals (EPs) who received EHR incentive payments between May 2011 and June 2014 and identified 14 inappropriate payments. OIG extrapolated the results of the review to the 250,470 total EPs who received incentive payments during that time period and estimated that CMS made approximately $729 million in inappropriate EHR incentive payments out of a total of just over $6 billion in such payments during the review period. Continue Reading OIG Reports More Than $731 Million in Inappropriate Medicare Meaningful Use Payments

Late last month, Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) introduced Senate Bill 787, the Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act (Telehealth Improvement Act), which is focused on expanding Medicare’s currently limited coverage of telehealth services and opportunities for innovation.

The Telehealth Improvement Act would require the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) to test the effect of including telehealth services in Medicare health care delivery reform models. More specifically, the Act would require CMMI to assess telehealth models for effectiveness, cost and quality improvement, and if the telehealth model meets these criteria, then the model will be covered through the Medicare program. Continue Reading More Federal Legislation Aimed at Expanding Medicare Coverage of Telehealth Services