I. Expansion of Telehealth to Meet Clinical Need
Federal and state governments have resolved traditional barriers to telehealth – including complexity of billing, lower reimbursement and privacy and security concerns – to facilitate the safe provision of medical services during the COVID-19 pandemic.[i] The first article in this two-part series highlights basic standards for regulatory compliance in the design of telehealth policies. The second article will address the practitioner’s obligation to minimize patient harm (and thus practitioner liability) with attention to the medical standard of care when assessing when and how telehealth is appropriate for each patient.
II. Mechanics of Telehealth Compliance
A. Minimum Standards for Telehealth Practice
A Wisconsin physician planning to provide treatment recommendations (including a prescription) by use of a website-based platform must observe requirements promulgated by the Wisconsin medical examining board to comply with state law and (when applicable) to receive payment from Wisconsin Medicaid.[ii] While the requirement that the physician be licensed to practice medicine in the state has been suspended during the COVID-19 emergency,[iii] the following formalities must still be observed during the pandemic to protect the integrity of the telemedicine encounter:
- Physician’s name and contact information must be made available to the patient;
- Informed consent must be obtained;[iv]
- A documented evaluation (including a medical history) must be performed. If needed to satisfy standards of minimally competent medical practice, an examination, evaluation, and/or diagnostic tests are also required.
- A patient health care record must be prepared and maintained.[v]
Under permanent Wisconsin telemedicine regulations, a physician-patient relationship may be initially established by use of two-way electronic communications, but not by use of audio-only telephone, email messages or text messages.[vi] Conditioning treatment of a patient upon the use of telehealth is expressly prohibited.[vii]
B. Reimbursable Telehealth Services
1. Wisconsin Medicaid & Telehealth
Wisconsin lawmakers began expanding the services and communications that may be provided by telehealth prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (“DHS”) continues to broaden the range of medical services covered by the state’s medical assistance program when delivered remotely, both during the public health emergency and beyond.[viii] DHS is adding Medicaid coverage for currently covered services when provided using a telehealth platform if functionally equivalent to an in-person visit (interactive synchronous technology).[ix] DHS’s criteria for “face-to-face equivalence” for interactive telehealth services includes the use of “audio, video, or telecommunication technology,” but only if there is “no reduction in quality, safety, or effectiveness.”[x] Audio-only phone communication that can be delivered with a functional equivalency to face-to-face service will be covered during the COVID-19 pandemic.[xi] DHS emphasizes that documentation must support the service rendered.[xii] For further explanation of these policies, visit ForwardHealth, Telehealth, Telehealth Expansion and Related Resources for Providers.[xiii]
Telehealth coverage expansion applies to all services currently indicated in topic (#510) of the FowardHealth Online Handbook (permanent policy), and additional services temporarily allowed for telehealth are published in ForwardHealth Updates.[xiv] For example, ForwardHealth is expanding coverage to include certain synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (not real-time) services such as remote patient monitoring and provider-to-provider consultations. DHS also plans to roll out expansion updates particular to specific services areas, such as therapy and behavioral health. DHS will use a phased approach to its expansion of telehealth services, keeping providers informed of expansion of coverage via the ForwardHealth website described above.
In addition to coverage criteria relating to the mode of telehealth services, a provider must be mindful of rules governing the logistics of telehealth visits. Wisconsin Medical Assistance (Medicaid) places no restriction on the location of the provider (permanent policy), which may include physicians, nurse practitioners, Ph.D. psychologists, psychiatrists and others.[xv] Beginning in March 2020, ForwardHealth began allowing coverage irrespective of the location of the patient (permanent policy).[xvi] However, only the following sites are currently eligible for a facility fee: hospitals, including emergency departments, office/clinics, and skilled nursing facilities.[xvii]
2. Federal Medicare & Telehealth
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) greatly expanded access to Medicare telehealth services based upon the regulatory flexibilities granted under Social Security Act § 1135 waiver authority and the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. Currently, Medicare will reimburse both synchronous video visits and also brief communication technology-based services (“CTBS”) for responses to Medicare Part B beneficiaries by telephone, audio/video, secure text messaging or by use of a patient portal.[xviii] Reimbursement for CTBS is limited to patients with an established (or exiting) relationship with a physician or certain practitioners. The billing codes for CTBS represent brief, patient-initiated communication services and do not replace full evaluation and treatment services covered under the Medicare benefit and described by existing CPT codes. To meet the criteria for medical necessity, CTBS must require clinical decision-making and not be for administrative or scheduling purposes. The patient must verbally consent to these types of services at least annually.
To be covered by Medicare, the CTBS must not be related to a medical visit within the previous seven (7) days and cannot lead to a medical visit within the next twenty-four (24) hours (or soonest appointment available).[xix] For Medicare reimbursement, providers must confirm that the particular diagnostic benefit falls within the description of CTBS codes. For example, CTBS codes do not include the audiology diagnostic benefit category.[xx] DHS applies similar requirements to billing for “telephone evaluation and management services” covered under Wisconsin Medicare.[xxi]
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Medicare will reimburse telehealth services at the same rate as regular, in-person visits. The level of reimbursement that is approved following the public health emergency will impact the availability of telehealth services.
C. Documentation Requirements
DHS policy (published via ForwardHealth updates available online) is to require that all services provided via telehealth be thoroughly documented in the member’s medical record in the same manner as services provided face-to-face.[xxii] Providers must develop and implement their own methods of informed consent to confirm that a member agrees to receive services via telehealth. ForwardHealth considers verbal consent to receiving services via telehealth an acceptable method of informed consent when it is documented in the member’s medical record.[xxiii] Documentation for originating sites (patient location) must support the member’s presence in order to submit a claim for the originating site facility fee. In addition, if the originating site provides and bills for services and also the originating site facility fee, documentation in the member’s medical record should distinguish between the unique services provided.[xxiv]
DHS is temporarily allowing supervision requirements for paraprofessional providers to be met via telehealth. Supervision must be documented according to existing benefit policy.[xxv]
III. Additional Considerations for Telehealth
E-Prescribing – Many states limit the prescribing of controlled substances based solely on telehealth examination. Generally speaking, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”) requires a telemedicine provider to have an in-person medical evaluation of a patient prior to prescribing a controlled substance for the patient, absent an exception. However, the DEA issued notice in March 2020 that this requirement is waived for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.[xxvi]
Privacy & Security – The Office for Civil Rights announced on March 17, 2020 that they will not impose penalties for noncompliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 regulatory requirements for remote communications technologies in connection with the good faith provision of telehealth during the national COVID-19 public health emergency. DHS has issued an update clarifying guidance regarding federal enforcement of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 regulatory requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.[xxvii]
Practicing Telehealth Across State Lines – Wisconsin has adopted the Federation of State Medical Boards’ Interstate Licensure Compact, which aims to expediate physician licenses for uses like telemedicine in states that adopt the compact. Wisconsin providers serving patients in other states must consult local state laws governing the physician-patient relationship and the use of telemedicine.
When a Wisconsin provider provides telemedicine services to a patient located outside of the state, legal review for choice of law and choice of forum should be undertaken. For example, the laws of the state in which each patient is located should be evaluated for: (1) statute of limitations; (2) standard of care; (3) limitations of liability; and (4) unique provisions governing the establishment or termination of the physician/patient relationship. To manage these challenges in a large telemedicine practice, a provider may need to consider establishing different legal entities for the practice of medicine in different states.
OCHDL will continue to monitor changes in regulations and policy impacting telemedicine. Our next blog post will address medical malpractice risk and telemedicine policies. For more information on these topics, contact Marguerite Hammes at 414-276-5000 or email@example.com.