As patients and healthcare providers have struggled to maintain access to care during the COVID-19 crisis, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has worked to ease regulations about who can use telehealth, which tools can be used to access it, and who pays and/or gets paid for it.
The first rounds of waivers made it easier for patients and providers to connect virtually by expanding payment parity for video visits, relaxing cross-state licensure regulations, allowing care to happen over devices not previously considered HIPPA-compliant, and permitting advanced practitioners to carry out virtual tasks.
These were important first steps and introduced thousands of providers and millions of patients to the benefits of telehealth. But for many, especially those in rural areas or lacking the technology required to participate in a video visit, the first round of relaxed regulations didn’t go far enough.
Thankfully, in the most recent round, CMS has opened things up a bit more. One waiver that could have the biggest impact is the expansion of the definition of “primary care services” to include remote evaluation of patient video/images, virtual check-ins, e-visits, telephone evaluation and management services, and telehealth. In other words, participants in the Medicare Shared Savings Program can expect program assignment to include asynchronous (or store-and-forward) virtual care visits using platforms like Bright.md’s SmartExam.
These new flexibilities will allow millions more patients to get care from home, without risking potential COVID-19 exposure for themselves or healthcare practitioners. Patients who couldn’t access care due to broadband issues or tech challenges, as well as providers who were unable to deliver care because they didn’t have a video telehealth solution deployed, now have new ways of connecting.
Those of us working in the virtual care space knew the promise it held for patients, providers, and systems long before the COVID-19 crisis. The crisis has introduced people throughout the U.S. to the convenience, affordability, and peace of mind that virtual care provides. CMS clearly recognizes telehealth’s ability to not only flatten the curve of COVID-19 but to treat non-coronavirus-infected patients as well. Every indication shows that more patients, providers, and systems will embrace these digital care modalities going forward.
But there are plenty of opportunities for further improvements as telehealth restrictions relax and allow more and more people to take advantage of virtual care. As we move through the next few months—before the all-but-inevitable second wave hits in the fall—we have a chance to take a few deep breaths and decide how to ensure every patient has the ability to get virtual care without surprise bills, while providers can deliver care online and be compensated fairly.