Telehealth

Trump administration greenlights Medicare telehealth services in rural areas

The Trump administration is taking steps to give telehealth a broader role under Medicare, with an executive order that serves as a call for Congress to make doctor visits via personal technology a permanent fixture of the program (Source: “Trump wants broader role for telehealth services in Medicare,” Associated Press, Aug. 3).

The order President Donald Trump signed on Monday applies to one segment of Medicare recipients — people living in rural communities. But administration officials said it’s intended as a signal to Congress that Trump is ready to back significant legislation that would permanently open up telehealth as an option for all people with Medicare.

Monday’s executive order will also set in motion an experiment under which hospitals in rural communities could receive a more predictable stream of Medicare payments in exchange for delivering better performance on certain measures of quality.


Telemedicine booms during pandemic, expected to stay

With relaxed state and federal rules aimed at enabling distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, telemedicine use has greatly expanded in Ohio and nationally (Source: “Rebuilding America: Telemedicine use prompted by COVID-19 here to stay, doctors and health care officials say,” Columbus Dispatch, May 28, 2020)

The necessity to isolate led to a sudden relaxation of federal privacy rules that had prohibited some less-secure forms of patient/doctor communication like FaceTime and not allowing doctors to communicate from home, where others might overhear. More importantly, the rules have been relaxed so that Medicaid and private insurers who previously wouldn’t pay for most virtual health-care visits now do so.

Those changes led to an explosion of telemedicine use. And doctors and health care experts say there will be no going back. This, they say, is a seminal moment for medicine.

Telehealth appointments could serve a more important role in the coming weeks as more people come into hospitals for elective surgeries. Gov. Mike DeWine removed restrictions May 1 on elective surgeries in the state. To reduce risk of exposure, patients might be encouraged to do their presurgery appointments from home.


CMS relaxes rules, allows telemedicine practice across state lines

The Trump administration has relaxed rules to enable doctors to remotely care for patients across state lines at rural facilities and let nurse practitioners perform more duties as workforce capacity becomes a major concern (Source: “CMS relaxes rules to boost capacity of providers as facilities tackle COVID-19 outbreak,” Fierce Healthcare, April 9, 2020).

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced a series of rules that will be relaxed for the duration of the public health emergency. The agency is trying to remove regulatory burdens facing providers swamped with treating the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It’s all hands on deck during this crisis,” said CMS Administrator Seema Verma in a statement. “All frontline medical professionals need to be able to work at the highest level they were trained for.”


Telehealth use rapidly expands in Ohio during pandemic

The COVID-19 outbreak is fueling an expansion of telehealth as state and federal officials seek to reduce the strain on the health care system (Source: “Coronavirus spurs growth of telehealth in Ohio,” Columbus Dispatch, March 26, 2020).

Allowing patients to meet with a doctor and get medical services via online video conferencing increases access to care while limiting face-to-face interactions that would occur during office or hospital visits, with the goal of reducing the risk of spreading the disease. It also can preserve personal protection equipment, which is in short supply.

As thousands more Ohioans turn to tax-funded Medicaid for health coverage during the pandemic, Gov. Mike DeWine signed an order last week to expand opportunities for telehealth for the program’s roughly 3 million beneficiaries.

In addition, Ohio Medicaid Director Maureen Corcoran told caseworkers at the county level to suspend annual renewals required to maintain coverage and to focus on enrolling newly eligible applicants as quickly as possible. Applications for the health insurance for the poor and disabled jumped 25% last week from the previous week.


Feds move forward with plan for national 3-digit suicide hotline

With suicides on the rise, the U.S. government wants to make the national crisis hotline easier to reach (Source: “Gov't wants a new 911-like number just for suicide hotline,” Toledo Blade, Aug. 15, 2019).

Once implemented, people will just need to dial 988 to seek help. Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline uses a 10-digit number, 800-273-TALK (8255). Callers are routed to one of 163 crisis centers, where counselors answered 2.2 million calls last year.

A law passed last year required the Federal Communications Commission to study assigning a three-digit number for suicide prevention, like 911 for emergencies or 311 for city services. The FCC said in a Wednesday report that there is “overwhelming support” for a three-digit number because it would be easier for distressed people to get help.


Feds to prioritize telemedicine funding based on ‘rurality’

The Federal Communications Commission is moving forward with plans to reform how funding is distributed for the agency's rural telemedicine program (Source: “FCC to prioritize telemedicine funding by 'rurality',” Modern Healthcare, Aug. 1, 2019).

The FCC on Thursday voted to adopt a report and order for its Rural Health Care Program, which helps fund broadband and telecommunications services for some healthcare providers in rural areas. A major part of the program involves subsidizing the difference between urban and rural rates for telecommunications services.

To address increasing demand for the program, last summer the FCC increased funding for the Rural Health Care Program to $571 million per year, up from its initial funding cap of $400 million.

With the new report and order, the FCC said it will reform the way it distributes Rural Health Care Program funding and take steps to guard against possible waste and inefficiencies in program costs.

In the event program demand outpaces available funding, the FCC now plans to prioritize support based on "rurality tiers," as well as whether the Health Resources and Services Administration designates a provider's area as part of a medically underserved population.


DeWine budget includes requirement for expanded telemedicine coverage

More Ohio insurers would be required to cover virtual doctor’s visits just like they would any other medical appointment, under a proposal from Gov. Mike DeWine that’s backed by some of Ohio’s largest health-care providers (Source: “DeWine administration seeks expansion of insurance coverage for virtual doctor’s visits,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 10, 2019).

In an interview, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said expanding telemedicine coverage would increase convenience for patients, broaden access for people in rural areas and decrease the likelihood that people visit the emergency room for routine health care. He said telemedicine, an emerging trend in health care, especially shows promise for addiction and other mental-health treatment.

The DeWine administration has proposed requiring that ”health benefit plans” cover telemedicine “on the same basis and to the same extent as in-person services.” The proposal only would affect state-regulated insurance plans — individual, small group and large-group plans — which cover roughly 1.7 million people, or about one-quarter of all Ohioans with private insurance.

Many insurers already cover telemedicine to varying degrees, but specifics of what the coverage actually entails varies. The telemedicine proposal, backed by the Cleveland Clinic and other large health-care providers, appears in the DeWine administration’s budget bill. Identical language appeared in a bill, sponsored by Strongsville Rep. Tom Patton, that cleared the Ohio House last year, but the measure died in the Senate.


Medicare pilot to test paying for ambulances to non-ER sites

Medicare wants to change how it pays for emergency ambulance services to give seniors more options besides going to a hospital emergency department, officials said Thursday (Source: “Medicare ambulance rides may no longer end up at ER,” Associated Press, Feb. 14, 2019).

Other options could include going to an urgent care center, a doctor’s office, or even treatment at home under supervision of a doctor via telehealth links.

The pilot program, if adopted nationwide, could save Medicare more than $500 million a year and allow local fire departments and ambulance services to focus the time and energy of first responders on the most serious emergencies.

Later this year, Medicare will announce up to 40 grants available to local governments or agencies that operate 911 dispatch centers. The pilot program would start early next year and run for two years. If successful, it could be adopted nationwide. Medicare says it also wants to get state Medicaid programs and private insurance companies interested in the approach.

The idea came out of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, created under the Obama health care law to improve quality and reduce wasteful spending in the two giant health care programs.


Updated HPIO online resource pages keep policymakers informed

One way that HPIO provides high-quality, unbiased information to state policymakers is through a series of resource pages on our website at www.hpio.net 

In order to ensure that policymakers and those who influence them have access to the most useful and up-to-date information, HPIO recently updated and revamped its Telehealth resource page and its Data transparency resource page.

The telehealth resource page includes links to both proposed and enacted legislation and rules, as well as links to HPIO material related to telehealth and resources from other organizations. The data transparency page includes health care cost and quality data from the federal government, Ohio-specific sources and private-sector national sources. 


UnitedHealthcare moves forward with telemedicine

UnitedHealthcare recently announced a partnership with three telemedicine companies to cover video-based doctor visits just as it covers in-person visits. The technology sector has for decades predicted that we would one day get our medical care via video chat, but it wasn't until recently that some physicians started considering using telemedicine. This decision may be a sign that the technology is becoming more mainstream. For now, these virtual visits will be available only to UnitedHealth’s self-funded customers, but the feature will expand to most members by next year (Source: “Video Is About to Become the Way We All Visit the Doctor,” Wired.com, April 30, 2015).