The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Ends This Week. Care Providers Should Keep Telehealth Flexibility Intact.

 

The COVID-19 public health emergency is coming to close this week, and with it, patients and physicians are preparing for a wave of adjustments. Many pandemic-introduced healthcare changes are set to end, including free COVID tests and treatments. Telehealth flexibilities, such as using applications like FaceTime for medical consultations, will cease, and providers will no longer be able to prescribe controlled substances via telemedicine without an in-person interaction.

The termination of a waiver to the Stark Law may also prevent providers from directly shipping specialty drugs to patients, a service essential for those in remote areas or with limited transportation access, despite the Community Oncology Alliance’s efforts to maintain this service post-emergency. Furthermore, healthcare providers face losing an emergency 20% pay increase for inpatient COVID-19 patients.

The end of pandemic-era waivers could prove challenging for hospitals to use telehealth across different locations. This is particularly challenging because the COVID-19 pandemic, despite its wide-reaching devastation, has also served as a catalyst for vital changes in healthcare delivery, most notably in telehealth.

Geoffrey Roche, Industry Lead of National Health Care Practice at Core Education PBC, digs deeper into the silver linings from the pandemic, and why the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency should be the start of a formalizing of telehealth service flexibility pioneered during the pandemic.

 

Geoffrey’s Thoughts

“It is so important to remind us that while the COVID public health emergency status is ending this week, there’s a couple of things that we still have to remember that are important at a time when we’ve been through this for so long. There were many changes that COVID-19 brought, particularly to our healthcare infrastructure that were actually positive, despite it being a pandemic. Some of those were with regard to telehealth.

And I think what’s important to understand about that is that through some actions, particularly that Congress took, as well as the administration took last year, or actually earlier this year, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 actually extended many of the telehealth flexibilities that were authorized during the COVID-19 public health emergency. And those extensions actually go through December 31st of 2024. Some of those extensions, just so individuals understand, relate to particularly federally qualified health centers, as well as rural health clinics, continuing to serve as a distant site provider for non-behavioral mental telehealth services, as well as Medicare patients will continue to receive telehealth services that were authorized in the calendar year of 2023 Medicare physician fee schedule, and there are no geographic restrictions for originating a site for non-behavioral mental telehealth services.

Additionally, some non-behavioral mental telehealth services will continue to be delivered using audio-only communication platforms, and an in-person visit within six months of initial behavioral mental health telehealth service, and annually thereafter, is not required. Finally, telehealth services can be provided by a physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech language pathologist, as well as audiologists. That is really, really important to understand.

However, there are some temporary changes through the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency that are important to understand. Telehealth can be provided as an accepted benefit, particularly under Medicare, and Medicare-covered providers may continue to use non-public facing application to communicate with patients without risking any federal penalties. What’s really important, particularly for the provider community, is to stay in touch, and particularly I would encourage them to visit telehealth.hhs.gov to further understand what and how this will continue to change with the conclusion of the public health emergency.

For patients, you will also want to ask your health insurance provider at any time, should there be a question, just check in with them. Understand it so that you’re clear, particularly if there may be any additional costs that may not be covered by your health insurance. At the end of the day, the benefit of COVID-19 pandemic, specifically to telehealth, allowing this additional flexibility with regard to the regulations, has actually been a positive. Expanding telehealth services so that we can reach harder to reach populations in some rural, suburban, and urban communities has actually been a positive.”

Article written by Daniel Litwin.

 

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