[Reprinted: Insurance Business America, 5-11-2020]
Telemedicine adoption has picked up in recent years. An American Medical Association (AMA) study from February 2020 showed a 100% increase in telehealth usage across three years, though the digital tool has yet to reach mainstream status.
The coronavirus pandemic might help to further speed up the adoption of this technology as telemedicine proves that it’s a safe and effective solution for containing the spread of the virus as it enables the provision of individual patient care and protects healthcare providers’ frontline staff, according to a special report from Worldwide Facilities, “Will COVID-19 Be the Moment of Truth for Telemedicine?” As a result, now more than ever brokers that serve the healthcare industry should be helping their clients understand the risks and regulations around telemedicine.
“Telemedicine connects patients and practitioners by way of video chat on a patient’s computer or cellphone, enabling care for those who don’t have the means or the time to make a trip to their doctor’s office, emergency room or urgent care facility,” noted the special report. In the wake of COVID-19, telemedicine allows people to access the care they need without potentially spreading the virus by visiting a physical doctor’s office.
The digital health tool can also protect patients who may have a compromised immune system for whom a flu virus could prove dangerous or even fatal. Moreover, access to healthcare during the pandemic is critical for patient care and recovery, and while social distancing is an important step for containment, it may not be possible to maintain for healthcare providers working on the frontlines and patients looking for care.
The government has already recognized the important place of telemedicine during this crisis. On March 04, the Telehealth Services During Certain Emergency Periods Act of 2020 expanded telemedicine by waiving Medicare’s geographical restrictions on telehealth during a public health emergency, such as the coronavirus pandemic. The act enabled providers to use telemedicine in urban and rural areas, as well as patients’ homes, easing restrictions on the use of a telephone to deliver care.
Then on March 19, congressional leaders introduced the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provided new and expanded telehealth flexibilities. The bill likewise allowed Medicare reimbursement for care providers using telemedicine to treat seniors at home. This means that older patients can avoid hospitals and physicians’ offices, where they could be exposed to COVID-19.
As telemedicine continues to gain acceptance among the healthcare industry and its use grows amid the pandemic, retail brokers should help their clients understand both the HIPAA Privacy Rule, which defines and governs protected health information, and the Security Rule, which sets the standards for securing patient data that is stored or transferred by electronic methods. Just as with physical documents, certain precautions have to be taken to protect patient information when it comes to the handling and storage of electronic medical records (EMRs), video, and images – the data collected in the scope of telemedicine applications.
“To remain in compliance with HIPAA guidelines regarding telemedicine and to properly safeguard EMRs, healthcare providers must adhere to rigorous standards for all virtual communications and put best practices at the forefront,” said Eric Sawyer, senior vice president of healthcare at Worldwide Facilities.
Besides the HIPAA Privacy and Security rules, healthcare providers also need to be aware of telemedicine laws, compliance issues, and best practices associated with the Affordable Care Act, Consolidation Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, and Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
Yet understanding the regulations around telemedicine is just one component of the advisory services brokers can provide their healthcare clients. Businesses rolling out and working with telemedicine capabilities also need to have the right insurance coverage as well as tools and resources available to them so that their business is protected as they offer cutting-edge services to their patients.
“For the majority of insurance brokers, carriers and physicians, telemedicine is unchartered territory,” said Sawyer. “Today, it’s vital for healthcare businesses to work with a specialized insurance broker who understands the intricacies of telemedicine to help them select the most appropriate insurance coverage and to better manage the risks.”