Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth technology had been incrementally changing the practice of family medicine in the United States. In March 2020, only 13% of American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) members had provided video or telephone visits to their patients. By May 2020, 94% of members were regularly doing so, aided by sweeping temporary policy changes that brought down many of the regulatory and reimbursement barriers that had inhibited the growth of telehealth for years.
For family medicine practices, the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the inadequacy of fee-for-service (FFS) payment. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has also allowed family medicine practices to innovate. Many family medicine practices are finding that telehealth is a powerful tool to promote continuity of care; offer convenient, routine care across a broad range of cases; and improve coordination with specialists outside the practice.
Perhaps most importantly, during the pandemic, telehealth has become overwhelmingly popular with patients by enabling access to care without fear of infection. Telehealth has the potential to transform the healthcare experience for elderly patients, patients with chronic conditions, patients with disabilities and patients living in remote or underserved areas. To meet the increasing demand, family medicine practices will need assurances that telehealth will continue to be paid for at appropriate rates as it has been on a temporary basis during COVID-19.
Manatt Health assisted AAFP in developing a new toolkit for family medicine practices as they plan for the medium term. When the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, the regulatory landscape for telehealth will shift to a “new normal.” Although payment policy decisions were not yet made at the time of the toolkit’s publication, it is increasingly clear that the payment environment will not look the same after the COVID-19 pandemic. In this new environment, alternative models of virtual care outside primary care are likely to expand rapidly, vying for the same patients served by family practices. Therefore, it is important for family practices to engage in medium-term planning now.
Developing and implementing a telehealth strategy requires an understanding of the regulatory environment and the skills to make it work. Family practices may try a range of approaches, test ideas and get feedback from patients as they stay abreast of changes to payment policies across payers. The toolkit covers all the major issues family practices will encounter as they move through this process, including: