Reimbursement for Teledermatology During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency: Change Has Come, But Will It Stay?

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The world of telemedicine—especially teledermatology—had been a sleepy underutilized afterthought for most physicians until we were faced with a global pandemic the likes of which none of us had seen in our lifetimes. And just like that, teledermatology went from an afterthought to part of the “new normal.” Although those of us already practicing telemedicine knew of potential pitfalls and concerns, this great social experiment of throwing everyone into unexplored territory led to a great deal of frustration with technology and workflows that were not optimized for dermatology visits. The process is still changing, and the technical aspects of conducting teledermatology visits will no doubt improve, but what about the bigger question of reimbursement? Without adequate payments and financial models, the long-term future of telemedicine is uncertain, so an understanding of the current and likely future landscape of telemedicine reimbursement is critical.

Waivers During the Public Health Emergency

The declaration of a public health emergency (PHE)allowed for significant flexibility by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Importantly, the CMS was permitted to act quickly to allow telehealth to flourish during the worst of the pandemic and throughout the declared PHE, which has been extended several times already. Currently, the PHE is set to expire on April 20, 2021, but may be extended again if the pandemic is ongoing. The most important of these waivers was probably the removal of both the originating site and geographic requirements for telehealth services.1 Prior to the COVID-19 PHE, a patient would have to travel to a doctor’s office, hospital, or skilled nursing facility to receive telehealth care (originating site requirement), and even then this was only allowed in defined rural areas of the country (geographic requirement). Both of these requirements were waived, allowing for any patient to receive telehealth services within their own homes. Concurrently, the requirement that patients must have an established relationship with the provider (ie, telehealth could not be used to provide care to new patients) also was waived.1

In the spirit of expanding access to care and providing reasonable reimbursement for medical services, other changes were made for which the CMS should be commended. In acknowledging that many Medicare/Medicaid beneficiaries may not have access to devices that permit real-time, 2-way audio/video communication, which previously were necessary to qualify for a telehealth encounter, the CMS decided to cover telephone visits and provide reimbursement at the level of an established visit.1 They also changed the billing structure to remove the place of service (POS) designation for telehealth (POS 02) and replace it with the normal physician’s office POS designation (usually POS 11), bringing back a telehealth modifier (modifier -95) in the process. The benefit of this change is solely to increase reimbursement for these services, as telehealth POS services generally are covered at lower facility rates, whereas POS 11 codes are reimbursed at the full level of a nonfacility physician’s office rate.

Finally, other waivers such as the Office of Civil Rights’ decision to waive HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) violations for telehealth platforms during the PHE allowed offices to take on telemedicine quickly without having to implement a new infrastructure.2 Numerous codes were added to the list of covered services for telehealth, but these generally are not relevant for dermatologists. The CMS also allowed physicians’ offices to waive the patient responsibility/co-pay during the COVID-19 PHE, which previously was not allowed due to concerns about the anti-kickback statute.1 These co-pay waivers were intended to remove another barrier to care for patients who were hesitant to participate in virtual visits. For the most part, the waiver of state licensing requirements is a bit less useful. As part of the CMS waiver, providers technically are allowed to see out-of-state Medicare/Medicaid beneficiaries, but state licensing laws are still in effect; thus, in the absence of a blanket state-level waiver (which some states enacted, modeled after the Uniform Emergency Volunteer Health Practitioner Act of 20063), providers still cannot see most out-of-state patients from a legal and malpractice coverage standpoint.

An important flexibility during the COVID-19 PHE is one that often is underrecognized. The CMS has been clear about the ability to provide direct supervision for advanced practice providers (APPs) and residents via telehealth during the PHE, which allows for incident-to billing for APPs at remote sites given that the supervising physician is immediately available via an interactive, 2-way, live audio/video telecommunications method. It also allows for direct supervision of APPs and residents using such technology. For dermatology, which does not have a primary care waiver, an attending must still directly supervise each patient and see the patient via a live audio/video modality but does not have to be on-site to do so. This is a very interesting concept that, if extended, could truly impact practice management for the long-term.


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