As the novel coronavirus outbreak continues, the federal government and commercial health insurers have taken significant steps to increase Americans’ access to treatment and testing. In the past week, the federal government and private insurers have issued a number of guidance documents expanding coverage and payment requirements in an effort to minimize the spread of the virus. As with any changes in coverage and reimbursement, healthcare providers offering telehealth services should carefully review these changes and take steps to ensure that all regulatory and coverage requirements are met prior to submitting claims for reimbursement.
On March 6, 2020, the bipartisan Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2020 (“Coronavirus Appropriations Act”) was signed into law authorizing federal spending to combat the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in the United States. This Act, among other things, gives the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ (“HHS”) secretary the authority to temporarily waive certain Medicare requirements for telehealth services.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) currently reimburses a limited set of telehealth services provided to Medicare beneficiaries subject to certain criteria under section 1834(m) of the Social Security Act. Generally, the patient receiving telehealth services must be located at one of eight “originating sites”, which include hospitals, physicians’ offices, and rural health clinics. In addition, the originating site must meet certain geographic requirements which have essentially limited the availability of telehealth to patients in rural areas. These requirements have long posed a hurdle to the expansion of telehealth despite the industry’s demand for lessened restrictions. However, with the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the possibility of facing large scale isolations and quarantines, lawmakers have signaled their willingness to expand access to telehealth to fight against this public health crisis.
Within the Coronavirus Appropriations Act is the Telehealth Services During Certain Emergency Periods Act of 2020, which sets forth the waiver authority for the secretary of HHS regarding the certain telehealth requirements. Under the Telehealth Services During Emergency Periods Act, the secretary is authorized to temporarily waive the originating site and geographic requirements for telehealth services provided to Medicare beneficiaries located in an identified “emergency area” during an “emergency period” when provided by a qualified provider. To qualify for the waiver, the provider must have treated the patient within the previous three years or be in the same practice (i.e., as determined by tax identification number) of a practitioner who has treated the patient in the past three years. The bill also lessens the telecommunications requirements by allowing Medicare beneficiaries to receive telehealth services via their smartphones (i.e., telephones that allow for real time, audio-video interaction between the provider and the beneficiary). Because the federal government has declared a nationwide public health emergency as a result of the coronavirus, the waiver will apply across the country until there is no longer a nationwide public health emergency.