With 2020 officially behind us, what does 2021 have in store for telemedicine and digital health policy? A year ago, our team predicted 2020 would bring “notable expansions in Medicare and Medicaid coverage” and “the reimbursement landscape looks promising for virtual care services.” Looking back, that was an understatement (if an easy one). Below are five new predictions for what legal changes telemedicine and digital health companies might expect to see this year.
1. Licensing: More Efforts to Increase Reciprocity and Reduce Barriers
In an effort to balance workload nationally and expand access to health care practitioners during the Public Health Emergency (PHE), many states temporarily suspended medical licensing requirements. As these temporary waivers begin to sunset, some state legislatures will seek to make the waivers permanent, allowing practitioners licensed in other states to deliver telehealth services across state lines, provided the out-of-state practitioner follows local state practice standards. While this may be a topic of discussion among policy shops, we expect few states will actually enact such changes in 2021.
Federally, the PREP Act allows practitioners to deliver telehealth services across state lines under a licensure exemption for COVID testing and certain limited “covered countermeasures” (e.g., treatment of COVID-19 infections). The PREP Act also grants certain immunities and protections, preempting state laws during the PHE. Given its Constitutional complexity and political nature, interstate licensing does not have a widely-accepted “solution,” nor does it have the bipartisan support seen in other areas of telehealth. Licensure will be a friction point between virtual care stakeholders and traditional practitioners invested in brick and mortar locations industry. The status quo (i.e., profession-specific interstate compacts and state-by-state patchwork legislative efforts) has left many digital health stakeholders unimpressed, frustrated, and increasingly searching for an alternate solution. Yet, a federal “top-down” preemption approach will be perceived as an unconstitutional encroachment on states’ rights under the 10th Amendment. Keep an eye out for a third channel to thread the needle, perhaps tying federal funds (e.g., Medicaid or COVID relief dollars) to state adoption of certain licensure waivers, enticing states to opt-in to interstate licensure reciprocity rather than federally compel it.
2. Modalities: Technology-Neutral State Laws that Prioritize Quality of Care.
In 2020, many states enacted new telehealth laws and rules to change prior practice standards, allowable modalities, or prescribing requirements. Changes included eliminating face-to-face exams, practicing via telephone only, or waiving modality prescribing restrictions on telemedicine. Some of these changes were made by legislation while others by executive order or regulation. Many of the changes were on a temporary basis during the pandemic (with expiration dates that, confoundingly, often did not match the federally declared Public Health Emergency date). These waivers created a telehealth regulatory environment that focused less on technical modalities of care delivery (e.g., audio-video vs. asynchronous) and more on meeting the standard of medical care for a given patient. Aiding in this effort, the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) published model policy language for state telehealth rules, to serve as a reference tool for best practices. This trend towards technology-neutral telemedicine laws will continue in 2021, with stakeholders emphasizing the importance of medical standard of care and clinical quality of services, rather than proscriptive modality requirements.