How Policymakers are Leveraging Telehealth in the New Reality of COVID-19

| Brittany McCullough
image of older woman having telehealth visit with doctor

Whether you call it novel Coronavirus or COVID-19, reality is those two terms have pretty much taken over our news feed and dominated public conversation. As such, my next couple of posts will focus on the approaches policymakers have taken to help respond to the pandemic and a few other options they should consider as we continue to grapple with this new reality.

By now I’m sure you heard the President signed the bipartisan Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201) into law after it was overwhelmingly passed by the House and Senate. The quick passage of the bill only came after the House scaled down their paid leave provisions to address concerns from the GOP about the bill’s impact on small businesses. And while I personally wish the bill went further, there will be additional measures to come (including the possibility of surprise billing finally being addressed).

In addition to H.R. 6201 being enacted, there have been a number of initiatives taken on the regulatory side to reduce red tape and increase the ability of providers to respond to this crisis.

Perhaps the most well-known initiative thus far are efforts from the Trump Administration to help waive many longstanding telehealth restrictions. Due to overwhelming calls from officials at local, state and federal governments to practice social distancing to help flatten the curve, there is a renewed focus on telehealth.

According to CMS’s press release, they have expanded access to telehealth for Medicare beneficiaries that will “temporarily pay clinicians to provide telehealth services for beneficiaries residing across the entire country”. CMS will leverage their authority under the 1135 waiver to expand telehealth on a temporary basis. If you aren’t familiar, section 1135 of the Social Security Act allows the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to waive or modify certain requirements within Medicare, Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). These waivers can only be invoked upon the President declaring an emergency or disaster as has been done with COVID-19.

In a nutshell, under the expansion of the 1135 waiver, CMS will allow Medicare to pay for telehealth visits rendered in a provider’s office, hospital and even the patient’s home starting March 6, 2020. This is a dramatic shift from CMS’s longstanding restriction to only allow for telehealth visits for patients in rural areas and when rendered in a health facility – not their homes. Given the demonstrated evidence of community spread, allowing seniors to have virtual visits with their providers without leaving their homes helps reduce risk to themselves and the community at large.

One thing that will be interesting to watch given the increased demand for telehealth is if the new flexibilities at the federal level will continue beyond this pandemic. My guess is yes, but as with anything government related – we’ll have to wait and see.

Stay tuned for my next post which will look at what some of the states are doing to address the crisis.

As a reminder, be sure to keep up to date with URAC’s response to COVID-19 by clicking here and check out our new webpage solely dedicated to the use of telehealth to help combat COVID-19 by clicking here.

Brittany McCullough photo

Brittany McCullough, Health Policy Specialist.

Brittany McCullough, URAC's health policy specialist, focuses on tracking and analyzing legislation and regulations of importance to URAC stakeholders. She also helps manage URAC’s public policy external engagement. Most of her policy and research work has been related to the ACA, Medicaid managed care, Part D, telehealth and mental health parity. She holds a B.S. in Neuroscience and a Master of Health Administration.

Views, thoughts and opinions expressed in my articles belong solely to me, and not necessarily to my employer.

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