Jack Atterberry, MJLST Staffer
The Pandemic Accelerated Telehealth Utilization
Before the Covid-19 pandemic began, telehealth usage in the United States healthcare system was insignificant (rounding to 0%) as a percentage of total outpatient care visits. In the two years after the beginning of the pandemic, telehealth usage soared to over 10% of outpatient visits and has been widely used across all payer categories including Medicare and Medicaid. The social distancing realities during the pandemic years coupled with federal policy measures allowed for this radical transition toward telehealth care visits.
In response to the onset of Covid-19, the US federal government relaxed and modified many telehealth regulations which have expanded the permissible access of telehealth care services. After a public health emergency was declared in early 2020, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) modified preexisting telehealth-related regulations to expand the permissible use of those services. Specifically, CMS temporarily expanded Medicare coverage to include telehealth services without the need for in-person visits, removed telehealth practice restrictions such as expanding the type of providers that could provide telehealth, and increased the reimbursement rates for telehealth services to bring them closer to in-person visit rates. In addition, HHS implemented modifications such as greater HIPAA flexibility by easing requirements around using popular communication platforms such as Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime provided that they are used in good faith. Collectively, these changes helped lead to a significant rise in telehealth services and expanded access to care for many people that otherwise would not receive healthcare. Unfortunately, many of these telehealth policy provisions are set to expire in 2024, leaving open the question of whether the benefits of telehealth care expansion will be here to stay after the public emergency measures end.
Issues with Telehealth Care Delivery Between States
A big legal impediment to telehealth expansion in the US is the complex interplay of state and federal laws and regulations impacting telehealth care delivery. At the state level, key state differences in the following areas have historically held back the expansion of telehealth. First, licensing and credentialing requirements for healthcare providers are most often licensed at the state level – this has created a barrier for providers who want to offer telehealth services across state lines. While many states have implemented temporary waivers or joined interstate medical licensure compacts to address this issue during the pandemic, many states have not done so and huge inconsistencies exist. Besides these issues, states also differ with regard to reimbursement policy as states differ significantly in how different payer types insure differently in different regions—this has led to confusion for providers about whether to deliver care in certain states for fear of not getting reimbursed adequately. Although the federal health emergency helped ease interstate telehealth restrictions since the pandemic started, these challenges will likely persist after the temporary telehealth measures are lifted at the end of 2024.
What the pandemic-era temporary easing of telehealth restrictions taught us is that interstate telehealth improves health outcomes, increases patient satisfaction, and decreases gaps in care delivery. In particular, rural communities and other underserved areas with relatively fewer healthcare providers benefited greatly from the ability to receive care from an out of state provider. For example, patients in states like Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota benefit immensely from being able to talk with an out of state mental health provider because of the severe shortages of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health practitioners in those states. In addition, a 2021 study by the Bipartisan Policy Center highlighted that patients in states which joined interstate licensure compacts experienced a noticeable improvement in care experience and healthcare workforces experienced a decreased burden on their chronically stressed providers. These positive outcomes resulting from eased interstate healthcare regulations should inform telehealth policy moving forward.
Policy Bottlenecks to Telehealth Care Access Expansion
The presence of telehealth in American healthcare is surprisingly uncertain as the US emerges from the pandemic years. As the public health emergency measures which removed various legal and regulatory barriers to accessing telehealth expire next year, many Americans could be left without access to healthcare via telehealth services. To ensure that telehealth remains a part of American healthcare moving forward, federal and state policy makers will need to act to bring about long term certainty in the telehealth regulatory framework. In particular, advocacy groups such as the American Telehealth Association recommend that policy makers focus on key policy changes such as removing licensing barriers to interstate telehealth care, modernizing reimbursement payment structures to align with value-based payment principles, and permanently adopting pandemic-era telehealth access for Medicare, Federally Qualified Health Centers, and Rural Health Clinics. In addition, another valuable federal regulatory policy change would be to continue allowing the prescription of controlled substances without an in-person visit. This would entail modifying the Ryan Haight Act, which requires an in-person medical exam before prescribing controlled substances. Like any healthcare reform in the US, cementing these lasting telehealth policy changes as law will be a major uphill battle. Nonetheless, expanding access to telehealth could be a bipartisan policy opportunity for lawmakers as it would bring about expanded access to care and help drive the transition toward value-based care leading to better health outcomes for patients.