Aligning OB/GYNs: Improving Care & Maximizing Reimbursement
August 3, 2023
Written by James Tekippe, CFA and Zach Strauss
For those in the healthcare industry, telemedicine has been viewed as a way to increase access to healthcare, while mitigating the challenges of limited resources of physicians and healthcare providers. Although the use of telehealth has steadily grown over the past two decades, the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic supercharged this growth. As the United States and the world move beyond the worst months and years of the pandemic, telemedicine usage will continue to change within the industry. This article will explore the state of telehealth immediately prior to and during the early years of the pandemic to provide context for the question, “What will be the next stage of telemedicine in the U.S. healthcare system?”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people in the industry believed telemedicine had the potential to make healthcare more accessible, especially for underserved communities. However, in 2016 only 15% of physicians worked in healthcare practices that used telemedicine in any fashion.1 Part of why utilization was low pertained to reimbursement rates. Physicians who utilized telemedicine were not reimbursed at the same level by Medicare as in-person services, and only a limited amount of visit types provided through telemedicine were reimbursable.2,3 In addition, Medicare outlined certain stipulations that allowed providers to use telemedicine for care, including requiring that the provider had a pre-existing relationship with a patient, limiting a provider to only providing services at the practice where they typically provided in-person services, and necessitating the provider was licensed and physically in the same state as the patient being treated.2,4 Finally, the technology used to provide telemedicine had to meet the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which required providers to invest in compliant technology to be able to offer care using telemedicine.5
During 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic became a catalyst that rapidly changed the direction of telemedicine in the U.S. From February 2020 to February 2021 telehealth claims volumes increasing 38x year over year.6 As the world, began implementing lockdown orders in February and March 2020 to limit the spread of COVID-19, legislators in the U.S. looked for a solution to assist the public in accessing the healthcare system while mitigating the public’s fear of contracting this virus. Various solutions were enacted as part of the CARES Act, which was passed in March 2020. These solutions were aimed at increasing the use of telemedicine by healthcare providers. Through CARES, many of the barriers that previously made it harder for providers to adopt the usage of telemedicine were relaxed. This created an unprecedented opportunity for providers to explore the capacity of this medium of care.
First, Medicare changed reimbursement for telemedicine visits to be the same as in-office visits.3 Additionally, physicians were given the ability to reduce, or even fully waive, the Medicare patient cost-sharing for telehealth services which made telemedicine more attractive to patients.3 The CARES Act also removed location barriers and made it possible for providers to see patients who were in different states from the provider during a visit.2 The CARES Act also allowed healthcare providers to offer more types of visits through telemedicine means, like emergency department visits, remote patient monitoring visits, and check-in visits.2 Additionally, providers who historically were not able to provide care through telemedicine, like occupational therapists and licensed clinical social workers, were able to use telemedicine as an option to treat patients.4 Finally, technology HIPAA requirements were relaxed such to allow more two-way audio-visual options, such as Facetime, Skype, Zoom, and audio-only telephonic services for telemedicine visits. This realty increased the ability for providers to offer this service to their patients.2, 5
As the country moves beyond the public health emergency COVID-19 created, the future of telemedicine will depend on whether = regulations revert back to the pre-COVID state. States across the country, from Washington to New Hampshire to Virginia, are introducing legislation to expand telemedicine beyond the CARES Act.7 Despite different geographical locations and political leanings, states seem to agree about telemedicine’s ability to increase access to healthcare. For example, Oregon has introduced legislation to permanently allow out-of-state physicians and physician assistants to provide specified care to patients in Oregon.7 Texas has proposed legislation that would remove the requirement of being “licensed in this state” from an array of licensing and practice requirements for providers to practice telemedicine in the state.7 Virginia has also proposed legislation that offers a solution for telemedicine service provider groups that employ health care providers licensed by the Commonwealth. The legislations would establish that these groups do not need a service address in the Commonwealth to maintain their eligibility as a Medicaid vendor or provider group.7
At the national level, two active bills, HR 4040 and HR 1110, both contain pro-telemedicine legislation. HR 4040, passed by the House in July of 2022, extended certain Medicare telehealth flexibilities beyond the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE). The bill would allow for Medicare beneficiaries to continue receiving telehealth services in any location they wish until December 31, 2024, or the end of the PHE, whichever comes later..8 In addition, this legislation would continue to grant other healthcare providers, such as occupational therapists and physical therapists, the freedom to continue practicing telemedicine via the CARES Act.8 Finally, behavioral health services, alongside evaluation/management services, would still be allowed via audio-only technology.8 Within the industry, this bill has seen support, specifically from the American Telemedicine Association and the American Counseling Association.7, 9
HR 1110 is a report commissioned by Congress with the explicit purpose of expanding access to telehealth services to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.10 Under this legislation, Congress would require that two reports be provided, one by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the second by the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission (MACPAC) and the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC).10 In the report led by HHS, Congress would require HHS to provide a comprehensive list of telehealth services available during the PHE. This report would include details about the types of providers that could supply these services, a comprehensive list of actions the secretary of the HHS took to expand access to telehealth services, and the reasons for these actions.10 Additionally, this report would require a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the previously mentioned telehealth services, specifically calling out data regarding use by rural, minority, elderly, and low-income populations.10
Regarding the MedPAC and MACPAC report, Congress would require an assessment of the improvements or barriers in accessing telehealth services during the PHE. And in addition, the information MedPAC and MACPAC know regarding the increased risk of fraudulent activity that could result due to expanding telehealth services.10 To conclude the report, Congress has asked both MedPAC and MACPAC to provide recommendations for improvements to current telehealth services and expansions of these services, as well as potential approaches for addressing fraudulent activity previously outlined in the report.10 Ultimately, these reports would be vital in shaping future policies around telemedicine to increase access to and improve the effectiveness of telehealth.
The last few years there have been major changes in many aspects of life, including the ways healthcare is delivered. The U.S. was able to tap into the large potential telemedicine has to offer during the worst stages of the pandemic. However, as we move into the future, it will be important for local and federal governments to continue improving the regulations that impact telemedicine to help expand access.