Telehealth: States broaden options for locations, providers


Responding to the opioid crisis

The need for increased access to mental health care is a primary driver behind state efforts to expand the pool of telemedicine providers, adds Amy Lerman, an attorney at Epstein, Becker, Green and lead author of her firm’s report.

“The reason it is important for states to continue expanding the scope of health professionals, other than physicians, who can provide behavioral health telemedicine services, is not only to address an overall nationwide shortage of behavioral health providers, but also to expand access to behavioral health services because a wider range of providers are equipped to provide these services,” she said in an interview.

In the same vein, more states are using telehealth to address the opioid crisis, according to both the Epstein report and the Center for Connected Health Policy analysis.

In September, California enacted a law that would allow Medicaid reimbursement for certified substance use disorder counselors who provide treatment via telehealth. In August, Illinois approved a similar law that mandates reimbursement for behavioral and mental health experts who treat Medicaid patients through telehealth technologies.

Daniel Kim, an attorney with Epstein, Becker, Green, P.C., and a co-author of his firm's report

Daniel Kim

The laws come after a June 2018 letter from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that encouraged states to utilize health technology efforts to address the opioid crisis, including through telemedicine and telepsychiatry, said Daniel Kim, an attorney with Epstein, Becker, Green and a coauthor of his firm’s report.

At the same time, a number of states have expanded their controlled substance laws to allow remote prescribing through telehealth for the treatment of psychiatric or substance use disorders. Connecticut’s law, for instance, allows providers to prescribe Schedule I-III controlled substances through telehealth platforms, while banning opioid prescribing. In Indiana, 2017 legislation expanded the types of controlled medications that providers can prescribe through telehealth platforms, primarily drugs used to treat or manage opioid dependence. The states join an increasing number that have enacted laws allowing the remote prescribing of controlled substances, including Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, and West Virginia.

The new laws will enhance the availability of behavioral health services, while allowing more treatment flexibility and privacy for patients, said Ms. Dooley.

“Treatment in one’s own environment where the addiction takes place is often more effective,” she said. People with addiction disorders “can also receive treatment without having to drive long distances.”

The disappearing in-person requirement

As states define their telehealth policies, they are fading out a once-prevalent requirement – the in-person visit. There is no longer a single state that requires physicians to meet with patients in-person before providing telemedicine services, according to the Epstein report.

States realized that requiring in-person visits before doctors can provide telemedicine creates a barrier to care, said Mr. Kim. A move to eliminate the requirement in Texas influenced other states in phasing out the common regulation. In the widely publicized Teladoc case, the national telemedicine company sued the Texas Medical Board in 2011 over its rule requiring Texas physicians to conduct a face-to-face evaluation before treating a patient via telemedicine. The legal battle continued for years, until Teladoc voluntarily dropped its lawsuit in 2017 after Texas adopted a new law that allowed doctors to treat first-time patients through telemedicine.

“The medical board [understood] that the in-person requirement wasn’t really a benefit to patients,” Mr. Kim said in an interview. “Once they changed it, a lot of other states have recognized the same and have moved toward getting rid of the requirement.”

In some states, midlevel providers still must see patients face-to-face before providing telehealth care. Arkansas for instance, requires that psychologists, counselors, and APRNs conduct an in-person exam before rendering telehealth. Professional boards in Colorado and Massachusetts recommend a face-to-face visit by midlevel providers as a best practice.

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