Telehealth: States broaden options for locations, providers


Reimbursement growing, but restrictions remain

Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia reimburse for some form of telehealth, mainly live video services. At least 20 states now pay providers for remote payment monitoring (RPM), according to the Center for Connected Health Policy report. The reimbursement is often restricted, however, to certain clinical conditions and/or rules that limit the type of monitoring device allowed. Colorado, for instance, only reimburses RPM for patients with congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, or diabetes and requires that the patient was hospitalized at least twice in the last 12 months for reasons associated with one of the conditions. Missouri has similar RPM criteria associated with hospitalizations, but allows for a greater number of conditions including pregnancy, stroke, and cancer.

Most states have yet to pay for store-and-forward services, technologies that enable the electronic transfer of photos, prerecorded videos, or documents. Only about 14 states reimburse for such technology, and many policies include limitations. California, for example, only reimburses for store-and-forward services in teledermatology, teledentistry, and teleophthalmology. Connecticut allows for store-and-forward payment between physicians through email. Missouri allows for store-and-forward services in orthopedics, dermatology, optometry, ophthalmology, and in cases of retinopathy, burn and wound care, dental services, and maternal-fetal ultrasounds.

Reimbursement for telehealth is still a challenge for many physicians, Dr. Sumner said. Part of the problem is the wide discrepancy in how telehealth is defined among states, she said. Some states only consider live or interactive two-way technology as telehealth, excluding services such as store-and-forward and RPM. Other states reimburse for certain technology-based services, but they do not consider them telehealth. Maryland’s Medicaid program for example, does not reimburse for store and forward under its telehealth policy. However, store and forward used in dermatology, radiology, and ophthalmology is reimbursed by Maryland under an alternate billing code, though not considered telehealth.

Establishing best practices in telehealth through careful evaluation and research would improve reimbursement, said S. David McSwain, MD, interim chief medical information officer at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, and medical director for telehealth optimization.

“We can use that evidence to reduce the variation in telehealth payment policies across the states,” Dr. McSwain said in an interview. “By leveraging reimbursement models to promote best practices, we can encourage the spread of telehealth services that have the greatest impacts on patients, their families, and the health care system.”

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