Telehealth in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond
Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts has recently issued an Order Expanding Access to Telehealth Services and to Protect Health Care Providers. The order, issued in March, is a public health response to the state’s state of emergency due to the Coronavirus or COVID-19 outbreak. Under the order, the Group Insurance Commission, all Commercial Health Insurers, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Inc. and health maintenance organizations regulated by the Division of Insurance are required to let all in-network providers deliver clinically appropriate, medically necessary covered services to their members via telehealth, and to mandate reimbursement for these services. The purpose behind the Order is to encourage the use of telehealth in the mainstream of health care provision, as a “legitimate way for clinicians to support and provide services to their patients.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts has recorded over half a million patient telehealth visits over a six-week span and that number is only increasing with time. In comparison, the average number of telehealth visits before the COVID-19 pandemic was 5,000. The demand for health care and medical advice without the requirement of an in-person appointment has soared in light of the outbreak that prevents or prohibits people from attending one due to social distancing guidelines. Prior to the crisis posed by the pandemic and before Governor Baker’s order, hospitals and doctors were disincentivized from offering telehealth visits because health insurers did not cover them or would offer a smaller pay as compared to in-person visits. By introducing payment parity between in-person visits and virtual ones, the order expands access to care as current Massachusetts law allows insurers to limit coverage of telehealth services to insurer-approved health care providers in a telemedicine network.
The arrival of the pandemic and state of emergency has pushed for a rapid expansion of the use of technology in the practice of health care. Many of the barriers to access of health care via telemedicine have shifted in a relatively short period of time. In addition to Governor Baker’s order for payment parity, for example, the Governor allowed health care providers outside Massachusetts to obtain emergency licenses to practice within the Commonwealth. Before this and other similar licensure waivers, licensure requirements usually demand that providers be licensed within the state that their patients reside. By waiving this requirement, providers can expand the network of care they are able to provide, and telehealth serves to eliminate the only other barrier–distance.
An additional movement towards lifting barriers to the implementation of telehealth services is the relaxation of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) noncompliance enforcements by Health and Human Services, with the caveat that providers engage in good faith provision of telehealth during the national health emergency posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. HIPAA rules require the protection of privacy and security of health information. The discretionary enforcement order allows health care providers to use any non-public facing audio or video communication products during the COVID-19 public health emergency. This movement attempts to strike a balance between providing access to care during a national health emergency and the privacy protections against the risk of information exposure that are expected by patients in their interactions with their health care providers.
Another response to the public health crisis has been issued by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, notifying that practitioners can, in light of the state of emergency, prescribe controlled substances in the absence of an in-person patient encounter. Prior, the prescription of controlled substances via telehealth evaluation was prohibited entirely. Now, prescribers are allowed to write prescriptions so long as: (1) the prescription is issued for a legitimate medical purpose in the course of the practitioner’s usual professional practice; (2) the telemedicine communication is conducted in a real-time, two-way, audio-visual communication system; and (3) the practitioner is acting in accordance to state and federal law.
As of May 2020, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has initiated a four-phase reopening plan, beginning with hospitals and community health centers. The East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, for example, has indicated that they have an extensive screening process for patients who head over for in-person appointments, including the use of phone-tracking technology to notify staff when the patient has entered the building in an attempt to streamline entrance to examination rooms. The continued need to introduce methods of facilitating social distancing within the hospitals and community health centers indicates that there will be a continued incentive for the provision of telehealth services. The East Boston Neighborhood Health Center reports that, in the first phase of reopening, they expect 25% of visits to be in-person, with 75% of visits to continue to be via telehealth services such as video chat or over the phone.
While some find telehealth services to be inconvenient, due to technological challenges and care that requires more physical examination than can be completed over the phone or by video calling, it seems likely that we will see a blended version of care into the future. Health care practitioners have indicated that, while telemedicine is not a complete substitution of physically seeing and examining patients, being able to speak with a patient in combination with access to the patient’s medical history goes a long way in being able to diagnose and treat health problems. There is a growing sense of certainty that the use of a technology-based health care experience will “become the new normal.”
The natural question is how the legal landscape will have to adjust in response to the shift as society reopens and the balance of the role of technology in a “new normal” becomes more urgent to strike. Many of the barriers to the expansion of telehealth have been rapidly eliminated as a temporary alleviation in direct response to the public health crisis posed by COVID-19. This indicates that the changes are ephemeral; however, with the uncertainty posed by the length of the pandemic and the resulting impact this will have on the use of technology in health care, it seems likely that some of these legal shifts will need to be modified, rather than entirely eliminated, moving forward.