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.

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.

In an effort to address the need for increased access to behavioral health services, Illinois has passed a series of bills that meaningfully expand the reimbursement of telehealth services delivered to its Medicaid patients. Illinois’ legislators, telemedicine advocates, healthcare providers and patient advocacy groups collaborated in an impressive effort to develop focused and targeted legislative solutions that effectively balance the need to get critical behavioral health services to patients in need with long-standing concerns that increasing access via telehealth will result in greater health care costs to a state already experiencing severe financial challenges.

Governor Bruce Rauner advised that these “initiatives work together to improve the quality of care and hopefully the quality of life for so many Illinoisans suffering from mental health and substance use disorders.” Supporters of the legislation are optimistic that these changes will further expand telehealth programs in Illinois, continuing the growth experienced in the past several years.

As a result of changes to the Illinois Public Aid Code (305 ILCS 5/5-5.25), the following will receive reimbursement from the Department of Healthcare and Family Services (“Department”) for delivering telehealth services that meet applicable requirements:

  • Clinical psychologists
  • Clinical social workers
  • Advanced practice registered nurses certified in psychiatric and mental health nursing
  • Mental health professionals and clinicians who are authorized by Illinois law to provide mental health services to recipients via telehealth (in addition to psychiatrists and federally qualified health centers)

The Department is also required to reimburse any Medicaid certified eligible facility or provider organization that acts as the originating site (i.e., the location of the patient at the time a telehealth service is rendered), including substance abuse centers licensed by the Department of Human Services’ Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.

In addition to these changes, the Illinois Telehealth Act’s definition of a “Health care professional” (225 ILCS 150/5) has been revised to include dentists, occupational therapists, pharmacists, physical therapists, clinical social workers, speech-language pathologists, audiologists, and hearing instrument dispensers. As a result of this change, these professionals are now explicitly subject to the Illinois Telehealth Act’s requirements.

Finally, the Illinois Insurance Code (215 ILCS 5/356z.22) has been amended to require that any individual or group policy of accident or health insurance that provides coverage for telehealth services also provide coverage for telehealth services provided by licensed dietitian nutritionists and certified diabetes educators to senior diabetes patients. The amended section clearly states that this change is intended to “remove the hurdle of transportation for senior diabetes patients to receive treatment.” While this change is a step in the right direction, Illinois remains in the minority as one of the states without a telehealth coverage and/or payment parity law. The vast majority of states have parity laws that, at a minimum, include a coverage requirement, mandating certain types of payors to approve and reimburse certain telehealth encounters the same as they would in-person medical encounters.

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The Illinois legislators who sponsored the passed legislation will be recognized for their efforts at the 2018 Telehealth Awards Luncheon organized by the Partnership for a Connected Illinois scheduled at the Chicago office of McDermott Will & Emery on November 13, 2018. Please contact Laura Lewandowski for additional details on registration.

The author thanks McDermott Summer Associate Emily Edwards for her research contributions to this article.

The Senate’s unanimous passage of the Creating High-Quality Results and Outcomes Necessary to Improve Chronic (CHRONIC) Care Act of 2017 (S.870) on September 26th is an encouraging step forward for modernizing telehealth access and reimbursement. The bipartisan, budget-neutral bill aims to improve health outcomes for Medicare beneficiaries living with chronic conditions and includes key provisions expanding access to telehealth. A summary of the key telehealth provisions under the CHRONIC Care Act can be found here.

The bill now moves to the House Subcommittee on Health and may be adopted in its current form or integrated into existing House bills. The House has already advanced three separate bills this year with telehealth provisions similar to those included in the CHRONIC Care Act: expanding telehealth services under Medicare Advantage (HR 3727), expanding telehealth for stroke patients (HR 1148), and expanding the use of telehealth to facilitate the use of home dialysis (HR 3178). With seemingly aligned goals between the two chambers, the House may accept the remaining provisions of the CHRONIC Care Act, or negotiate minor changes and incorporate the CHRONIC Care Act into another priority health care related bill, such as extending federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as a vehicle for passage this calendar year.

The recent momentum of federal legislation focused on expanding telehealth services to Medicare beneficiaries signals Congress’ continued consideration of telehealth’s ability to improve patient health and lower the costs of health care delivery. In light of this increased legislative activity, health care providers, commercial payers and telehealth technology companies should be mindful of the following.

  • Consider developing or participating in studies designed to test the efficacy and efficiency (including costs) of telemedicine programs.
  • Continue exploring ways to tailor their care delivery and revenue models to provide telehealth services to Medicare beneficiaries.
  • Offer Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and MedPAC insights and guidance on ways to provide the Federal government agencies overseeing Medicare coverage and payment for telehealth services the best available industry information.
  • Focus operational goals to achieve cost and value goals that are of concern to the government.

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