This is clearly not the way we wanted this to happen, but we are seeing an expansion of telehealth capabilities for Medicare recipients as part of the ongoing effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The move is designed to improve access due to office closures, reduce strain on the health care system as a whole, and help doctors accrue some income from the interactions.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has broadened access to Medicare telehealth services under the 1135 waiver authority and Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act. As of March 6, 2020, Medicare beneficiaries can now visit a doctor by video without additional cost. Doctors and patients can communicate via commonly used platforms like FaceTime, Skype, Apple, Facebook Messenger, and Google Hangouts without fear that the Office of Civil Rights will impose a penalty for noncompliance with HIPAA rules. (Note: Facebook Live, Twitch, TikTok, or other public-facing communication services are not appropriate telemedicine channels.)

This waiver applies to Medicare for now, but the Trump administration is also urging state-sponsored programs to provide telehealth services and has asked private insurers to expand telehealth benefits. The Administration is also working with states to expand the service to those enrolled in Medicaid.

This means that we can bill for telehealth visits for any patient in any location. The waiver is limited to established patients, but HHS has stated they will not conduct audits to check a patient’s status. These visits are reimbursed at the same rate as standard, in-person visits.

Coding and Connecting

My last article, “Cracking the Codes: Telemedicine Rolls Forward,” highlighted three new online digital E/M service codes for telemedicine. These codes are available to use now, and are presented again in the call-out box for your review.

We are living and working through an unprecedented and challenging time in our history. The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our livelihood and our ability to care for our patients. The easing of telemedicine restrictions should help us weather the storm and provide much-needed care for patients.

I suggest investing in a video-conferencing system or app to treat patients during this tumultuous time. In addition, these systems allow us to communicate with one another as calls for social distancing have led to cancelled meetings, both large and small. Staying connected with our patents and each other is the best medicine.