As encouraged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, healthcare providers have a unique and pressing opportunity to use telehealth tools to address COVID-19 preparedness and offer telehealth services to potential COVID-19 patients. However, healthcare providers’ response to the COVID-19 outbreak highlights some of the barriers to the provision of telehealth services.

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States grows, healthcare providers are stepping up their response planning. To combat the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged healthcare systems and providers to deploy all of the resources necessary to ensure health system preparedness. The CDC recommended the use of telehealth tools to help address COVID-19 preparedness and to assist in directing patients to the right level of healthcare for their medical needs.

Healthcare providers have a unique and pressing opportunity to offer telehealth services to potential COVID-19 patients. At the same time, healthcare providers’ response to the COVID-19 outbreak highlights some of the barriers to the provision of telehealth services. Providers considering using telehealth as part of their COVID-19 response efforts should take the following factors into consideration:

  • While healthcare providers cannot diagnose COVID-19 through a telehealth visit, they can perform a number of services without requiring a patient to visit crowded medical facilities where the virus might be present. These services include performing initial patient screenings, assessing and assigning risk categories to patients, determining if a patient needs to seek diagnostic testing, and answering patient questions and offering treatment recommendations.
  • Deploying telehealth services is not without its challenges. The varying reimbursement policies of private, state and federal payers, as well as differing state-based medical licensing requirements, may burden providers and patients with confusion, economic inefficiencies and onerous processes in a difficult engagement context.
  • As part of the COVID-19 response discussions, telehealth advocates propose that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reduce or eliminate its long-standing telehealth reimbursement restrictions. This change would allow Medicare to pay for virtual visits during national emergencies, regardless of originating site or geographic location. There is also a push to waive the lengthy enrollment process telehealth providers must undergo to be paid by Medicare.
  • While telehealth has the potential to assist in a healthcare system’s response to COVID-19, providers still must comply with state laws and regulations that govern telehealth, including but not limited to professional licensure, scope of practice, standard of care and patient consent, in addition to the reimbursement requirements and limitations put into place by third-party payers.
    • Typically, telehealth providers must be licensed in the state in which the patient is located, although certain states have exceptions that telehealth providers may leverage in response to COVID-19.
    • Telehealth providers must practice within the scope of practice of the profession in which they are licensed and within the standard of care set forth by the governing professional board in a given state.
    • State telehealth laws may require a specific modality for telehealth consultations (e.g., audio-visual consultations). Likewise, third-party payers may require a specific modality for telehealth consultations for purposes of reimbursement.