The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is calling on Congress to permanently lift restrictions that have allowed unfettered delivery of telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic, which experts say has been a boon to patients and physicians alike.
“We ask Congress to extend the telehealth waiver authority under COVID-19 beyond the emergency and to study its impact while doing so,” said APA President Jeffrey Geller, MD, in a May 27 video briefing with congressional staff and reporters.
The APA is also seeking to make permanent certain waivers granted by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on April 30, including elimination of geographic restrictions on behavioral health and allowing patients be seen at home, said Dr. Geller.
The APA also is asking for the elimination of the rule that requires clinicians to have an initial face-to-face meeting with patients before they can prescribe controlled substances, Dr. Geller said. The Drug Enforcement Administration waived that requirement, known as the Ryan Haight Act, on March 17 for the duration of the national emergency.
Telemedicine has supporters on both sides of the aisle in Congress, including Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) who said at the APA briefing he would fight to make the waivers permanent.
“The expanded use of telehealth has enormous potential during normal times as well, especially in behavioral health,” said Mr. Tonko. “I am pushing fiercely for these current flexibilities to be extended for a reasonable time after the public health emergency so that we can have time to evaluate which should be made permanent,” he said.
Dr. Geller, other clinicians, and advocates in the briefing praised CMS for facilitating telepsychiatry for Medicare. That follows in the footsteps of most private insurers, who have also relaxed requirements into the summer, according to the Medical Group Management Association.
The Medicare waivers “have dramatically changed the entire scene for someone like myself as a clinician to allow me to see my patients in a much easier way,” said Peter Yellowlees, MBBS, MD, chief wellness officer, University of California Davis Health. Within 2 weeks in March, the health system converted almost all of its regular outpatient visits to telemedicine, he said.
Dr. Yellowlees added government still needs to address, what he called, outdated HIPAA regulations that ban certain technologies.
“It makes no sense that I can talk to someone on an iPhone, but the moment I talk to them on FaceTime, it’s illegal,” said Dr. Yellowlees, a former president of the American Telemedicine Association.
Dr. Geller said that “psychiatric care provided by telehealth is as effective as in-person psychiatric services,” adding that “some patients prefer telepsychiatry because of its convenience and as a means of reducing stigma associated with seeking help for mental health.”
Shabana Khan, MD, a child psychiatrist and director of telepsychiatry at New York University Langone Health, said audio and video conferencing are helping address a shortage and maldistribution of child and adolescent psychiatrists.
Americans’ mental health is suffering during the pandemic. The U.S. Census Bureau recently released data showing that half of those surveyed reported depressed mood and that one-third are reporting anxiety, depression, or both, as reported by the Washington Post.
“At this very time that anxiety, depression, substance use, and other mental health problems are rising, our nation’s already strained mental health system is really being pushed to the brink,” said Jodi Kwarciany, manager for mental health policy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, during the briefing.
Telemedicine can help “by connecting people to providers at the time and the place and using the technology that works best for them,” she said, adding that NAMI would press policymakers to address barriers to access.
The clinicians on the briefing said they’ve observed that some patients are more comfortable with video or audio interactions than with in-person visits.