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TREATS Act Aims to Expand Use of Telehealth to Treat Substance Use Disorder

A bipartisan pair of US senators have proposed legislation that would allow certain controlled substances to be prescribed via an initial telehealth encounter and—under certain conditions—expand Medicare reimbursement of audio-only substance use disorder treatment services. The proposed TREATS Act has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and could significantly reduce the regulatory burdens associated with the remote prescribing of controlled substances.

For more than a decade, healthcare providers in the United States have been largely prohibited from prescribing controlled substances via telehealth without having previously performed an in-person medical evaluation of the patient. Although Congress created the framework for a “special registration” pathway that has the potential to more broadly permit the practice, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has not issued regulations to implement it. This has been a significant roadblock for the treatment of substance use disorder, which is often treated with controlled substances. Recently, Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) proposed the Telehealth Response for E-prescribing Addiction Therapy Services Act (the TREATS Act), which would allow certain controlled substances to be prescribed via telehealth. The TREATS Act also proposes to expand Medicare reimbursement of audio-only substance use disorder treatment services, if certain conditions are met. The TREATS Act was introduced on June 30, 2020, and has been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Remote Prescribing of Schedules III and IV Controlled Substances

The remote prescribing of controlled substances has been stymied by the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008 (the Ryan Haight Act), which typically requires providers to perform an in-person medical evaluation of the patient prior to prescribing controlled substances. The Ryan Haight Act does incorporate seven pathways by which practitioners can prescribe controlled substances via telemedicine without a prior in-person examination, but these exceptions are extremely narrow and it is difficult for most providers to meet their requirements. One of the pathways, however, called for a “special registration process” that had the potential to more broadly permit providers to prescribe controlled substances via telemedicine. Congress left the implementation of the special registration process up to the DEA—and the DEA never issued regulations to implement it. After ten years of silence, Congress again pushed the DEA to act, imposing a second deadline for the DEA to implement regulations regarding the special registration process by October 24, 2019, under the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act. While there were rumblings that the DEA was prepared to act in late 2019, it is still yet to issue a proposed rule regarding the special registration process.

As we explained in a prior On the Subject, the COVID-19 public health emergency ushered in a significant, albeit temporary, change to the Ryan Haight Act, permitting providers to prescribe controlled substances via telehealth without a prior in-person medical evaluation during the pendency of the public health emergency declared [...]

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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.




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