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Expanded Telemedicine Services Presented as Means to Address Opioid Crisis in New Legislation

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.




Surfing “Tech’s Next Big Wave”: Navigating the Legal Challenges in Digital Health

Fortune’s April 2018 cover story, “Tech’s Next Big Wave: Big Data Meets Biology,” conveys loudly and clearly that technological innovation is transforming the health care continuum—changing the way care is delivered, as well as how patients manage their ongoing health—and as patient demand for health innovation increases, more companies seem eager to hop on the digital health bandwagon. The article provides a thoughtful, realistic (and somewhat sobering) perspective on digital health innovation’s successes and other results to date. It also quite effectively uses real world stories to convey the human dimension of digital health. One is the story of a mother who manually sampled and recorded her son’s glucose levels 20 times a day before an automated monitoring system connected to a mobile app allowed them both to live their lives without constant interruption by this critical care management function. Another describes use of an artificial intelligence “command center” to expedite access to life-saving surgery by a man with an aortic dissection. These real-world examples drive home the fact that digital health is already making a profound difference in our lives by removing barriers to care that are critical to saving lives and managing chronic diseases.

What the article does not touch on, however, are the myriad, complex legal challenges that must be addressed at the earliest stages of the planning process and the intensifying interest of government oversight and enforcement bodies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, interested in protecting the safety and privacy of patients and consumers. Just last month, we saw the SEC charge Theranos’ CEO Elizabeth Holmes with fraud for allegedly misleading investors about the company’s ability to detect health conditions from a small sample of blood. Earlier this year, another “unicorn” start-up, Outcome Health, settled with the federal government after The Wall Street Journal reported that they allegedly misled advertisers with manipulated information. The United States has also brought claims against the private equity company investor of a compounding pharmacy that allegedly paid illegal kickbacks to marketing firms to induce prescriptions written by telemedicine providers for costly compounded drugs reimbursed by TRICARE.

Opportunities and Challenges of the Patient Data “Gold Rush”

Eric Topol, MD, director at the Scripps Research Institute, told Fortune that “the quest to retrieve, analyze and leverage” data “has become the new gold rush. And a vanguard of tech titans—not to mention a bevy of hot startups—are on the hunt for it.” There is no doubt that harnessing and analyzing big data provide virtually limitless fuel for digital health innovation of the type patients and consumers are demanding and that tech companies are eager to develop and commercialize. While optimism about the quest for big data is certainly justified, it must be tempered by caution and careful consideration of complex, multi-dimensional legal [...]

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