News Feature | June 24, 2014

HHS And The Future Of Telemedicine Regulations

By Megan Williams, contributing writer

Government IT News For VARs — December 3, 2014

Telemedicine will inevitably play a large part in the future of healthcare. As with any other innovation in the industry though, much of its growth and success will depend on regulations around technology and reimbursement, and how agencies respond to industry needs. It’s important for solutions providers to understand the financial incentives (or disincentives) behind any technology offerings they make to clients.

Thanks to three letters sent to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell by industry stakeholders, the conversation has already begun.

Petitioning Policymakers

The complaints of the letters, according to Health IT Outcomes, center on the problem of current regulations actually discouraging providers, ACOs, and trade groups from practically supporting telemedicine measures. The letters came from The Alliance for Connected Care (lobbyist group), the American Telemedicine Association, HIMSS, Qualcomm, Intel, the Telecommunications Industry Association and other groups, and finally from the CEOs and presidents of 29 health systems and ACOs.

Burwell isn’t the only one hearing about the issue. University of Michigan professor, Rashid Bashshur, recently presented the results of a study at a Senate office building, revealing that telemedicine effectively reduces hospital length of stay and emergency visits. The study, sponsored by the Alliance For Connected Care (advocacy group led by Tom Daschle, Trend Lott, and John Breaux) reviewed literature around cases of congestive heart failure, stroke, and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). The presentation was just the beginning of the group’s efforts to educate policymakers about the realities and potential of telemedicine, according to the Washington Post.

Reimbursement Issues

But how problematic is the reimbursement issue? According to MedScape, 80 percent of Medicare recipients who live in non-rural areas are excluded from having their claims reimbursed. This is expected to contribute to an estimated loss of $36 billion in savings between now and 2018.

Providers of telemedicine face not only regulatory issues at a national level, but also individual state regulations that impact their practice decisions just as heavily. Florida, for example, recently enacted a set of new regulations that went into effect on March 12. Already, providers claim that they are not as comprehensive as needed.

Clinical Input

The AMA recently endorsed the use of telemedicine as a method of improving access and quality of care, while simultaneously maintaining patient safety. The increasingly complex regulatory environment provides potential for VARs to tie navigation and preparedness to benefits providers are likely to receive from implementing telemedicine technologies targeted toward an environment that favors cost-conscious decision making and is increasingly moving toward organizations like ACOs that facilitate those values.

As stated by AMA president, Dr. Robert Wah, “Whether a patient is seeing his or her physician in person or via telemedicine, the same standards of care for the patient must be maintained.”

The association has also stepped up its support of more stringent payment guidelines, according to HealthData Management. For solutions providers, this means an increase in the importance of communication technologies between not only providers and payors, but also providers and patients themselves.