WASHINGTON, D.C. — In an attempt to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, federal officials are relaxing some regulations to promote the use of telehealth services.
Seema Verma, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said President Donald Trump directed the agency to expand the use of telehealth services, including allowing Medicare to reimburse for it and making more devices eligible for use.
Use of telehealth under Medicare previously was only allowed in rural areas, but the new directive expands that to urban areas as well. Some private insurers also provided the service.
Perhaps more importantly, it will relax regulations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) allowing more devices to be used.
“As we expand this benefit to protect our elderly populations, it’s important for as many Americans as possible to use it,” Verma said.
“To our primary care doctors, I want you think about treating this virus, most of the people we will be treating will be on an outpatient basis,” said Dr. Amy Acton Monday. Acton is Ohio’s state health official.
“I want you to really take advantage of telemedicine and telephone flexibility,” Acton added. “What we want to do is to take care of that 80% of outpatients the same way we would take care of stroke. The same way every minute matters, that is true of coronavirus.”
She said physicians can still do a thorough case history, including whether anyone else in the household is sick or showing possible symptoms.
“Anyone sick needs isolated and folks exposed in that household need quarantined immediately,” Acton said. “You don’t need a test to do that.”
She urged physicians to then let the patients know what to look for next and to keep in close contact with them in their home through technology.
“Everything we can do without having face to face is important, because we now know the greatest spread is coming in our nursing homes and hospitals.”
She said this can include a health care provider who may have been exposed going to multiple other facilities to see patients.
Acton also said this would help conserve the professional protective gear, which is in short supply, for hospital workers.
Verma added the relaxed regulations now allow patients and medical staff to use cell phones, tablets, Facetime and Skype, among other technology, to communicate.
Verma stressed each individual needs to decide if they feel their privacy might be at risk by using those items.
“But given the emergency, this can be a vital connection,” Verma said. “It’s also good for someone seeing flu-like symptoms to see about coming in to the doctor’s office and possibly exploring other options.”
Medicare is also temporarily waiving the co-pay usually associated with the service.
“We don’t want to create any barriers to seniors seeking health care,” Verma said. “In an emergency, those on the front lines should not have to worry about red tape from regulations.
“This should be especially valuable for nursing home patients,” Verma added. “It could also help medical staff, by allowing those in the health care industry to focus on necessary cases. It could also help conserve medical supplies.”
Verma said it is possible these changes could outlast the current medical emergency because regulations were moving this way anyway.
“I think telehealth has strong promise for the system,” Verma said.