Understanding Telemedicine in the Time of COVID-19
By Laura C. Hoffman
In this previous post, Seton Hall Law Professor Jennifer Oliva describes the federal government’s recent Medicare reforms aimed at enhancing access to telemedicine health care services during the COVID-19 crisis. But what exactly is telemedicine? The varying terms that are used to describe “telemedicine,” including “telehealth” and “telemental health,” can cause confusion. Moreover, the use and definitions of these terms frequently differ from state to state.
The American Telemedicine Association (“ATA”) defines “telemedicine” as “the remote delivery of health care services and clinical information using telecommunications technology.” As the ATA explains, telemedicine “includes a wide array of clinical services using internet, wireless, satellite and telephone media.” The organization recognizes that “telemedicine” and “telehealth” are terms that can generally be used interchangeably, while “telemental health” is a form of telehealth that pertains to the provision of mental health services.
Telemedicine is a tool that permits health care providers to virtually assess an individual’s symptoms to develop a diagnosis and treatment plan as well as to monitor the patient’s health. This is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic because use of telemedicine alleviates the need for individuals to leave their homes to obtain health care services. Instead, patients can use their telephones, computers, or tablets to communicate with their treatment providers.
Several states have expanded access to telemedicine or telehealth services in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. The Center for Connected Health Policy maintains an updated list of ongoing state-level COVID-19-related actions. In addition, please find below a brief overview of the recent legal and policy steps taken by the states of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut intended to expand patient access to telemedicine/telehealth services during the COVID-19 crisis.
On March 22, 2020, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation, which expands telehealth services in New Jersey in light of COVID-19. The new law authorizes any healthcare practitioner to provide and bill for services using telehealth to the extent appropriate under the standard of care throughout the duration of the public health emergency. It also includes a provision that allows the State to expedite the licensure requirements for out-of-state medical professionals. In addition to that new law, New Jersey recently waived certain provisions of the State’s Medicaid Plan requirements to facilitate the use of telehealth during the COVID-19 crisis.
On March 11, 2020, the New York Office of Mental Health released guidance that permits the use of telemedicine to provide mental health services during the public disaster emergency period. Two days later, New York issued supplemental guidelines, which expanded both the definition of telemental health services and the types of medical professionals that are authorized to provide those services.
On March 13, 2020, the Connecticut Department of Social Services (“DSS”) expanded its telemedicine coverage in response to COVID-19. Specifically, Connecticut DDS implemented “full coverage of specified synchronized telemedicine, which is defined as an audio and video telecommunication system with real-time communication between the patient and practitioner” and included telehealth services in such coverage. The State’s Medicaid Plan also extended coverage to specified synchronized telemedicine services for Children’s Health Insurance Program (“CHIP”) beneficiaries.
These unprecedented times have forced the health care delivery system to re-imagine the ways that it typically provides health care services. Telemedicine is an important tool in light of the COVID-19 crisis because it permits providers to leverage technology in order to safely deliver health care services to patients. It also eases the burden on traditional health care systems that are stressed in light of the public health emergency.
Laura C. Hoffman is an Assistant Professor of Law and Faculty Researcher at Seton Hall University School of Law. Her work for the Center for Health & Pharmaceutical Law focuses on research, development, and dissemination of legal and policy analyses that informs and shapes federal and state policy. She specializes in the legal and policy impacts on vulnerable populations, including children and those living with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Professor Hoffman's biography and publications are available online.