By: Jim Hoover, Burr & Forman, LLP
The changes made to the requirements for telehealth services since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have been swift and substantial. For the first several weeks, it seems changes were made almost daily. As time has passed, the changes to telehealth have stabilized enough that a summary of the current telehealth issues is possible. However, changes may still be forthcoming so the following is a summary of the significant topics related to providing telehealth services as of the date of this article. Physicians should continue to monitor announcements related to telehealth requirements as changes will surely continue to evolve.
Medicare – On March 30, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced additional temporary expansion of telehealth services to Medicare beneficiaries. CMS’s announcement of this new reimbursement flexibility builds on its prior expansion of telehealth services to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the March 30, 2020 announcement, CMS announced the following: (1) the patient location requirement was being waived to allow the patient to be in their home or other location; (2) the audio-video link can be something as simple as Skype, FaceTime or Facebook Messenger video calls. However, the audio-video link has to be a real-time audio and a one-to-one video connection, and cannot be public-facing; (3) the patient cost share can be waived at the providers’ discretion; and (4) CMS stated it will not audit to verify that there is an established patient relationship.
CMS announced in its March 30, 2020 announcement that it is now also allowing Medicare beneficiaries to receive care via telehealth by: (1) adding more than 80 services to the list of services payable under the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule when furnished via telehealth, including emergency department visits, initial nursing facility and discharge visits, critical care services, home visits for new and established patients, and physical and operational therapy services; (2) allowing clinicians to provide Virtual Check-In services to new patients in the same manner as they previously could provide only to established patients; (3) allowing licensed clinical social workers, clinical psychologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists to provide e-visits; (4) allowing clinicians to provide certain services by audio phone only to their patients; (5) allowing clinicians to provide Remote Patient Monitoring, for acute or chronic conditions, to both new and established patients; (6) removing certain frequency limitations on Medicare telehealth; (7) expanding the use of telehealth to certain home health and hospice services; and (8) expanding the definition of “homebound” so that when a physician determines that a Medicare beneficiary should not leave the home due to suspected or confirmed COVID-19, the patient can qualify for the Medicare Home Health benefit.
Miscellaneous Issues – Patient consent may be obtained annually and
obtained by ancillary staff. Direct
Supervision of services, such as incident-to services, normally require that
the supervising/billing physician be in the office suite and immediately
available. However, for the duration of the PHE, direct supervision can be
provided by real-time interactive audiovisual technology.
Medicare – As an initial matter, telephone calls are still not the same as telehealth for Medicare purposes. A full list of the Compliant List of Medicare Telehealth and the Medicare Telehealth Code List for 2019-2020 is located on CMS’ website at the following address https://www.cms.gov/Medicare/Medicare-General-Information/Telehealth/Telehealth-Codes.
CMS is allowing payment for certain codes related to telehealth services because as an example, CMS recognizes that some problems can be handled over the phone without a face-to-face, but may require more than the 5-10 minutes. The codes for established patients for physician or other qualified professionals (nurse practitioners or physician assistants) include 99441 (requires 5-10 minutes of medical discussion), 99442 requires 11-20 minutes of medical discussion), 99443 (requires 21-30 minutes of medical discussion). Practitioners should report the E/M code that best describes the nature of the care they are providing. Previous guidance was to use POS 02 that will cause payment to be made at the lower facility rate. Alternatively, providers can choose to use the POS code that most accurately reflects where the service is performed and append modifier 95. This will cause payment to be made at the higher non-facility rate.
Alabama Medicaid – Medicaid normally requires separate credentialing for providers performing telehealth; however, that restriction has been waived for the time period for dates of service from 3/16/2020 – 4/16/2020. Medical providers may bill established patient evaluation and management codes 99211, 99212 and 99213 for telephone consultations. Psychologists and behavioral health professionals should bill 90832, 90834, 90837, 90846, 90847 and H2011. Verbal consent must be obtained and documented in the medical record. These visits will count against the patient’s office visit limit of 14 visits per year.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama – is allowing providers to bill for telephone call treatment of existing patients under the established patient office visit codes for dates of service from 3/16/2020 – 4/16/2020. They are allowing codes up to 99213 with place of service code 02 for telehealth. No modifier is required. The physician should be the one speaking with the patient — not the office staff.
HIPAA – Over the past several weeks, the Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) has issued several notices regarding HIPAA in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. The OCR issued a Notification of Enforcement Discretion for Telehealth Remote Communications during the COVID-19 Nationwide Public Health Emergency. OCR stated that it would relax its enforcement actions with regard to compliance with certain aspects of HIPAA (and not enforce penalties) in order to allow providers to better treat their patients via telehealth. A health care provider that wants to use audio or video communication technology to provide telehealth to patients during the public health emergency can use any non-public facing remote audio or video communication product that is available to communicate with patients. Health care providers may use applications that allow for video chats, including Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger video chat, Google Hangouts video, or Skype, to provide telehealth without risk that OCR might seek to impose a penalty for noncompliance with the HIPAA Rules. However, communication applications that are public facing should not be used. OCR further stated that it would not impose penalties against health care providers for the lack of a Business Associate Agreement with video communication vendors. The above applies to telehealth provided for any reason, regardless of whether the telehealth service is related to the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions related to COVID-19. The OCR also issued additional guidance in the form of frequently asked questions (FAQs) which are available at https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/telehealth-faqs-508.pdf.
State Licensure – Most states have greatly relaxed or streamlined their licensing requirements and application process to make it easier for physicians to provide telehealth services across state lines. However, the application process and requirements for each state differ so it is extremely important for physicians to check with each state. For example, the state of Tennessee requires the practitioner to complete and submit an application, which can be found at: https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/health/documents/cedep/novel-coronavirus/Boards-Executive-Order-Form.pdf. The determination is made on a case by case basis. It appears most applications are being approved by the Tennessee Department of Health because as of the end of March 2020 the Department had received 61 applications and approved 59 applications, denied one, and one was under review. The State of Florida, for purposes of preparing for, responding to, and mitigating any effect of COVID-19, permits health care professionals not licensed in Florida to provide health care services to a patient located in Florida using telehealth, for a period not to exceed 30 days unless extended by order of the State Surgeon General. The exemption applies only to out of state health care professionals holding a valid, clear, and unrestricted license in another state or territory in the United States who are not currently under investigation or prosecution in any disciplinary proceeding in any of the states in which they hold a license.
While the telehealth waivers and notifications have slowed down in recent days, it is still very important for physicians to keep updated on the various requirements from state licensing authorities and payors.
Jim Hoover practices with Burr & Forman LLP and works exclusively within the firms Health Care Industry Group and primarily handles healthcare litigation and compliance matters.