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There may never be a better time for your medical practice to start developing its telemedicine portfolio. Recently, the federal government has made it easier for healthcare providers to provide and bill for telemedicine services. While some of these changes are temporary, applying only while the COVID-19 public health emergency persists, other changes are permanent. And the trend lines are becoming more distinct—providers who fail to offer remote visit options for their patients will increasingly find themselves struggling to fill their appointment calendars and meet their financial targets.

What Steps Has Medicare Taken to Promote Telemedicine?

Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the federal government agreed to provide more Medicare reimbursement, under more circumstances, to healthcare providers who diagnose and treat their patients remotely. Specifically, Medicare has equalized payments for telehealth visits and in-person visits in many instances. It has also loosened restrictions on the types of providers who can render telemedicine services, the types of services that can be offered remotely, and the types of technology that can be used to connect providers and patients. Many of these changes have been adopted and expanded upon by state governments that are eager to increase patient access to telehealth services, especially in rural areas. For example, many states have relaxed licensing restrictions that barred providers from rendering telemedicine services to patients located across state lines. These changes will not only increase access to healthcare services, they may also improve healthcare outcomes and patient satisfaction.

What about Medicaid and commercial payers?

For the most part, Medicaid and commercial payers have followed Medicare’s lead when it comes to enhancing reimbursement for telehealth services. Oregon’s Medicaid program has made it clear that it wants its beneficiaries to enjoy the same level and type of telemedicine access that Medicare beneficiaries enjoy. It has recently adopted rules that require Managed Care Entities to pay the same rates for telehealth services as they pay for in-person services. It has also encouraged providers to consider offering remote options “for all services that can reasonably approximate an in-person visit, not just those relating to a COVID-19 diagnosis.”

Commercial insurers regard telemedicine benefit enhancements as a way to differentiate themselves in a competitive market. Providence Health Plans is making it easy for providers to connect with their patients remotely by temporarily offering reimbursement for telemedicine visits conducted via patients’ personal devices. Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon has equalized reimbursement for telehealth visits and in-person visits through the end of the year.  Other plans have waived co-payments and expanded their lists of covered telehealth services.

How Does Your Practice Get Started?

The time and energy needed to understand the various telemedicine options available, let alone develop a viable telemedicine program, can seem daunting. However, the government is here to help. Really. Its website, telehealth.hhs.gov, provides practical tips and tools for planning and implementing your remote visitation program. A particularly valuable resource linked to the page is the American Medical Association’s (AMA), “Telehealth Implementation Playbook.” This extensive guide takes providers on an easy-to-follow, six-step journey through the development process. It also offers practical and well-crafted worksheets and forms that can be used in your medical practice with little or no modification. 

One key takeaway from the AMA playbook and other resources is that you should not attempt to implement a telemedicine program on your own. Fortunately, you don’t have to. The increased attention focused on remote medicine has drawn a number of consultants and specialists into the fray. These experts can help your practice with everything from selecting a telehealth vendor and platform to drafting your patient informed consent documentation.

Coronavirus has forever changed the healthcare environment. Telemedicine will play a key role in the new world. Medical practices that fail to adapt and respond to the current state of affairs may increasingly find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. So, the time for planning and developing your practice’s telemedicine portfolio is now. Your patients are waiting.

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