The COVID-19 pandemic has caused healthcare providers to rapidly adopt telehealth services. This shift has been driven by social distancing protocols that isolate patients and their families from their doctors, as well as the need to preserve personal protective equipment. In response, healthcare leaders have implemented operational changes to support successful adoption of telehealth, such as the development and enactment of policies, the standardization of training and certification, and the provision of necessary resources. The use of a centralized operating model has been key to the successful launch of telehealth within two months.
However, there have been variations in adoption and performance. Sections that require in-person visits (e.g., otolaryngologists who view the nostrils by endoscopy) have had difficulty transitioning to telehealth. Sean Sullivan, an attorney for the medical practice group at Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird, believes that changes in reimbursements and increased use of telehealth will reduce overall healthcare costs in the long run. Policy makers, payers, and providers must determine whether the changes made to the telehealth policy in light of COVID-19 outweigh potential concerns, whether they should remain on a permanent basis, and whether telemedicine helps to enable accessible, quality healthcare.
Normally, doctors must be licensed to practice in states where they offer telemedicine services, and states regulate which health professionals are accredited to practice in their state. This complexity of the telemedicine regulatory framework makes it difficult for patients to know what services are covered and for providers to know what standards they must comply with. In addition, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) expects that paying for services based on communication technology will increase Medicare costs since it predicts that “the number of new or recently billable visits and subsequent treatments will exceed the number of times that services based on communication technology will be used instead of more expensive services”. In Georgia, legislators recently pushed through a pair of telemedicine bills that would allow providers outside of Georgia to provide virtual care in the state while requiring payers to cover telehealth services at the same price as in-person services.
In response to the emergency caused by COVID-19 and with the aim of expanding the availability of telemedicine, the federal government has taken steps in all these areas. Fortunately, changes in legislation and regulation in response to the pandemic allowed Emory Healthcare to rapidly implement telehealth care. Jay Backstrom, director of the digital imaging and telehealth office at Illinois-based consulting firm Impact Advisors, explains that in some states, the doctor providing the virtual service is even required to have an office in that state. As doctors seek new ways to care for patients and stop the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the United States, policy makers and insurers have turned to telemedicine or telehealth to provide care for patients in their homes.
Importantly, states are also responsible for deciding what telehealth services their Medicaid program will cover, and most states also have laws governing the reimbursement of telemedicine expenses in fully insured private plans. Telemedicine is becoming increasingly important as a way for healthcare providers to deliver quality care while reducing costs and increasing access for patients. In Atlanta, Georgia, policy makers have taken steps to ensure that telemedicine is available for those who need it during this pandemic. The federal government has also taken steps to make sure that reimbursement is available for those providing these services.
With these changes in place, healthcare providers can now offer quality care while reducing costs and increasing access for patients.