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Policy

Drawing of “The Telemedicine Doctor” by a child patient of Sara Gibson, MD. Image courtesy of Health Choice Arizona.

In last week’s blog, I discussed Drug Enforcement Agency limitations on the use of telemedicine to prescribe controlled substances. To summarize the restrictions, the DEA requires that any prescription of a controlled substance must be issued by a practitioner who has conducted at least one in-person medical evaluation of the patient, with a few, very complicated exceptions.

During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, the DEA has relaxed these restrictions and is allowing telehealth evaluations to substitute for in-person evaluations. Sara Gibson, MD, a Flagstaff-based telepsychiatrist, last week discussed the impacts of the restrictions and waivers on patients in underserved areas with opioid use disorder. Today, she points out another at-risk population affected by the DEA prescribing restrictions outside of the PHE.

Dr. Gibson demonstrates her telemedicine setup with a staff member, circa 2013. Photo courtesy of Health Choice Arizona

Since the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) was declared in January, the use of telehealth has skyrocketed. This is in part because many restrictions on it have been lifted for the duration of the PHE in order to make healthcare services more accessible to patients while maintaining physical safe distance. Some of the temporarily waived restrictions include Drug Enforcement Agency limitations on the use of telemedicine to prescribe controlled substances.

Normally, the DEA requires that any prescription of a controlled substance be issued by a DEA-registered practitioner who has conducted at least one in-person medical evaluation of the patient, with a few exceptions. These include the patient being located in and treated by a DEA-registered hospital or clinic or the patient being in the physical presence of another DEA-registered practitioner during the evaluation.

By now, I think we have all heard about the surge of temporary waivers, relaxations of Medicare coverage restrictions, regulatory changes and flexibilities, and governors’ orders allowing for the expansion of telehealth during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE).

This is all great news for telehealth – for now. Medicare telehealth services increased by 11,718 percent between March and April, and other payers are reporting similar increases. But what happens when the PHE is over? And when will the PHE be over?

So far, the Health & Human Services (HHS) Secretary has renewed the PHE once, in April, for 90 days. HHS has announced its intent to renew it again this month, meaning the PHE would then expire October 21, unless renewed again or declared over before that date.

The long-awaited promise of telemedicine may finally be realized as a response to Covid-19.

For decades, advocates hailed telemedicine as the way forward to improve access and reduce cost, while maintaining high-quality care. There have been steady gains in investment and growth across the country, and an increasing number of studies suggest that for certain services, namely chronic care management and mental health services, telemedicine may be superior to in-person care. Specifically, studies showed better health outcomes through improved medication adherence, integration of medical tests, and reduced hospital readmissions. However, even with these positive steps, it would be a stretch to claim that telemedicine had transformed the US healthcare system and, in large part, that is because of legal barriers that were in place prior to Covid-19.

Last week I wrote about the big changes to Medicare telehealth coverage during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE). But Medicare coverage is only part of the story.

Here’s an overview of several other temporary telehealth policy changes and federal telehealth programs you should know about. (This is not a comprehensive list but rather an overview of some of the most notable actions taken so far. Before engaging in any telehealth encounter and relying on a given regulation, I recommend you check the appropriate website or reach out to your regional Telehealth Resource Center for the most up-to-date information.)

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