Now Trending in Behavioral Health: Integration Strategy, Regulatory Compliance, & Transactions
August 10, 2021
Over the past few years, trends and events have occurred that have led to increased and continuing demand for mental health care services. First, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) expanded coverage and access to mental health care services. Then, more recently, the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (“PHE”), and corresponding citywide shutdowns, brought about a spike in anxiety and depression with these conditions increasing to four times pre-COVID-19 levels.[2,3] Healthcare workers were among some of the most heavily impacted with one study finding that almost half of healthcare workers reported serious psychiatric symptoms, including suicidal ideation. While demand for mental health services has continued to increase, the number of providers actively practice in the United States is estimated to have the capacity to meet only 28% of all mental healthcare needs.
As the COVID-19 pandemic increased demand for mental health care services, the healthcare industry rapidly expanded its offering of telehealth services. Specifically, telehealth services grew to represent up to 40% of outpatient care at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic (up from less than 1% of outpatient care in 2019). This increase in service offerings and patient care in the telehealth space was made possible by relaxed regulations related to the provision of telehealth services. In the following sections, we discuss how healthcare organizations can implement or continue to expand telehealth services to meet demand for mental health care services in the communities they serve.
As discussed, the gap between the supply of mental health providers and the demand for mental health services is notably widening. As of June 30, 2022, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) has designated 6,300 mental health provider shortage areas.
These designated shortage areas collectively contain over 152 million Americans, approximately 46% of the total population. As health systems and hospitals attempt to navigate these challenges, telemedicine has emerged as a potential avenue for bridging the gap between the supply and demand for behavioral health services.
The American Telemedicine Association (“ATA”) describes telemedicine as the “natural evolution of healthcare in the digital world.” Precisely, telemedicine promotes and improves the quality, access and affordability of healthcare through the use of rapidly evolving technologies. Specifically, telemedicine refers to the use of medical information exchanged between parties via electronic communications to improve a patient’s clinical health status. Electronic communication including videoconferencing, streaming media, transmission of still images, remote patient monitoring devices and many other telecommunication methods allow(s) physicians to closely monitor and/or provide clinical services that would otherwise be unavailable for the patient. Oftentimes, the electronic information is combined with electronic medical records (“EMR”) to formulate a more accurate consultation or specialist opinion. Telehealth allows practitioners and patients to interact without the requirement to be face-to-face in a hospital or clinic setting.
At the same time, remote, or tele-, work was implemented across many industries to combat the challenges of the COVID-19 PHE shutdowns. As a greater percentage of the workforce had the option to participate in a remote work setting, 9 in 10 remote workers want to maintain remote work to some degree going forward. One of the top reasons employees desire a hybrid or fully remote work arrangement is that it increases personal wellbeing. Given the well-documented physician burnout rates exacerbating provider shortages, it would be prudent for health systems, hospitals, and practitioners to consider using alternative coverage models, including employing the use of telemedicine. By leveraging virtual care offerings, practitioners can experience the same advantages that have led the majority of Americans to respond with resounding positivity to remote work, potentially alleviating some of the stressors that contribute to provider burnout.
Telemedicine offerings can also be used to redistribute the supply of practitioners. The hub and spoke model was one of the first practical telehealth models and is a common way to structure virtual care offerings while leveraging the existing practitioner base and extend care to facilities or communities in need. In this model, the hub facility is typically a larger facility that has the resources to provide specialized care that many smaller and/or rural facilities lack. By scaling the existing resources of the hub, the spoke sites are able to close gaps in care without incurring the costs associated with a full-time provider or locum tenens staffing. Behavioral health providers focused on increased access to care and better quality of care outcomes for their patients will find success in a virtual care-driven future.
Telemedicine is a tool for healthcare entities that, if embraced and properly utilized, can help bridge the behavioral health care gap. To effectively leverage virtual care services, it is important to understand the compliance and regulatory implications of these offerings and to establish equitable compensation models for providers that consider any limitations remote workplaces on of their scope of practice.
As of July 15, 2022, the COVID-19 PHE was extended through October 2022 by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and, along with it, continued flexibility around regulatory compliance regarding telehealth and reporting deadlines. VMG’s Coding, Compliance, and Operational Excellence (CCOE) division has compiled current documentation and coding requirements for telehealth services, which are listed below. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather an overview of important considerations related to a compliant telehealth service line.
In addition, the following guidelines should be considered when submitting claims to Medicare for virtual mental health services:
Additionally, in its CY 2023 Proposed Rule, CMS has proposed to make hospital outpatient behavioral telehealth services reimbursement permanent, which could increase access to behavioral health services in rural and other underserved communities. It is important to note that after the PHE ends, additional behavioral health and telemedicine requirements will need to be met including:
As virtual services become more common through further regulatory shifts, healthcare organizations can expect increased scrutiny towards telehealth services arrangement by governmental enforcement bodies. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a Special Fraud Alert (Alert) on July 20, 2022, related to the inherent fraud and abuse risk associated with physicians or other health care professionals entering into arrangements with telemedicine companies, which specifically addresses fraud schemes related to telehealth, telemedicine, or telemarketing services based on dozens of civil and criminal investigations. The Alert identified seven characteristics that the OIG believes could suggest a given arrangement has potential risk for fraud and abuse. To learn more, reference this article and OIG’s statement.
By using telehealth, behavioral health providers can better fill the gap between growing demand and limited supply, providing quality and efficient services to those in need, particularly to underserved and isolated communities. Compliant telehealth arrangements can promote more efficient financial operations for health systems, provide increased access to care for patients, and improve the well-being of behavioral health providers.
11. https://bhbusiness.com/2022/07/15/cms-proposes-to-make-hospital-outpatient-tele-behavioral-health-services-reimbursement-permanent/?mkt_tok=NjI3LUNQSy0xNjIAAAGFsMvYuo_UB6dQZxBh_IkZF4hvXACFV0GIjZxfM2vrUB 5h-VkrhwcEgWlpyflCT-dNK26J0lXJUVSjQhZQaVKdJQFPw4S7QA5L-e9bxR0