COVID-19 Telehealth Relief; CMS ESRD, General Practitioner Telehealth Toolkits Released

Today, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released two comprehensive toolkits on telehealth:

  • The Telehealth Toolkit for General Practitioners available here;
  • The End-Stage Renal Disease Providers Toolkit available here.
  • The Toolkits’ release follows up on last week’s Centers for Medicare & Medicare Services (“CMS”) loosening of requirements for Medicare coverage of telehealth services and privacy and data security requirements so that beneficiaries can receive a wider range of services from their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility on a temporary and emergency basis under the 1135 waiver authority and Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act.
  • COVID-19 Emergency TeleHealth Waivers
  • Under this new waiver, Medicare can pay for office, hospital, and other visits furnished via telehealth across the country and including in patient’s places of residence starting March 6, 2020. 
  • A range of providers, such as doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers, will be able to offer telehealth to their patients.
  • New TeleHealth Toolkits
  • Each of the telehealth toolkits released today contains electronic links to reliable sources of information on telehealth and telemedicine, which will reduce the amount of time providers spend searching for answers and increase their time with patients. Many of these links will help providers choose learn about the general concept of telehealth, choose telemedicine vendors, initiate a telemedicine program, monitor patients remotely, and develop documentation tools. Additionally, the information contained within each toolkit will also outline temporary virtual services that could be used to treat patients during this specific period of time.

    • COVID-19 Limited HIPAA Privacy Telehealth Relief
  • Previously last week, HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) announced relief providing covered health care providers subject to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy, Security and Breach Notification Rules greater latitude for communicating with patients, and providing telehealth services, through remote communications technologies during the COVID-19 national emergency, OCR also published a bulletin advising covered entities of further flexibilities available to them as well as obligations that remain in effect under HIPAA as they respond to crises or emergencies available here.
  • According to the OCR Notice, a covered health care provider that wants to use audio or video communication technology to provide telehealth to patients during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency can use any non-public facing remote communication product that is available to communicate with patients. OCR is exercising its enforcement discretion to not impose penalties for noncompliance with the HIPAA Rules in connection with the good faith provision of telehealth using such non-public facing audio or video communication products during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency. This exercise of discretion applies to telehealth provided for any reason, regardless of whether the telehealth service is related to the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions related to COVID-19.

    The OCR Notice temporarily allows HIPAA-covered health care providers to use some, but not all popular applications that allow for video chats, including Apple FaceTime, Facebook Messenger video chat, Google Hangouts video, or Skype, to provide telehealth without risk that OCR might seek to impose a penalty for noncompliance with the HIPAA Rules related to the good faith provision of telehealth during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency. This relief, for example, allows a health care provider during the COVID-19 emergency in the exercise of his or her professional judgement to request to examine a patient using a video chat application connecting the provider’s or patient’s phone or desktop computer in order to assess a greater number of patients while limiting the risk of infection of other persons who would be exposed from an in-person consultation.

    Under this Notice, however, Facebook Live, Twitch, TikTok, and similar video communication applications are considered “public facing,” which OCR says health care providers should not use in the provision of telehealth.

    The Notice encourages health care providers to notify patients that these third-party applications potentially introduce privacy risks, and providers should enable all available encryption and privacy modes when using such applications.

    Covered health care providers that seek additional privacy protections for telehealth while using video communication products should provide such services through technology vendors that are HIPAA compliant and will enter into HIPAA business associate agreements (BAAs) in connection with the provision of their video communication products. The Notice states that some vendors that represent to OCR that they provide HIPAA-compliant video communication products and that they will enter into a HIPAA BAA include:

    • Skype for Business
    • Updox
    • VSee
    • Zoom for Healthcare
    • Doxy.me
    • Google G Suite Hangouts Meet

    However the Notice also states OCR has not reviewed the BAAs offered by these vendors, and this list does not constitute an endorsement, certification, or recommendation of specific technology, software, applications, or products. There may be other technology vendors that offer HIPAA-compliant video communication products that will enter into a HIPAA BAA with a covered entity. Further, OCR does not endorse any of the applications that allow for video chats listed above.

    Under this Notice, however, OCR will not impose penalties against covered health care providers for the lack of a BAA with video communication vendors or any other noncompliance with the HIPAA Rules that relates to the good faith provision of telehealth services during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency.

    Guidance on BAAs, including sample BAA provisions, is available here. Additional information about HIPAA Security Rule safeguards is available here.

    Beyond the Notice, HealthIT.gov has technical assistance on telehealth here.

    CMS continues to monitor the developing COVID-19 situation and assess options to bring relief to clinicians. To keep up with the important work the Task Force is doing in response to COVID-19 click here www.coronavirus.gov. For complete and updated information specific to CMS, please visit the Current Emergencies Website.

    More Information

    We hope this update is helpful. For more information about the these or other health or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.  

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