The year 2020 will be remembered in history for many things. Surely one of the most memorable happenings will be the COVID-19 global pandemic. The list of negative impacts on Americans due to COVID-19 seems to grow daily. However, there is a bit of good news. This public health emergency has given interest in telemedicine an enormous boost. It has resulted in an increase in access to telehealth services for everyone. This more universal access may be one positive lasting legacy we can take with us into the future.

Federal Actions Increase Access to Telehealth Services

As the gravity of COVID-19 became more and more apparent the federal government began to take action. The 1135 Waiver expanded coverage of telehealth under government healthcare programs in several ways. It allowed Medicare to pay for both office and hospital visits provided via telehealth across the country. It removed barriers concerning who was covered and where a person had to live to be covered. It broadened the scope of providers whose services would be paid for.

Also beginning in March of 2020 Medicare began to pay for telehealth visits from patient’s homes. In the past, a patient needed to be at a preapproved site to access telehealth services. New emergency regulations removed this requirement. This allowed Americans who were living under orders to “shelter in place” or “stay at home” to access health care as needed.

The 1135 Waiver also allowed doctors and other healthcare providers to waive or reduce co-payments for patients accessing telemedicine through federal healthcare programs. This made healthcare visits more accessible for many patients in need.

Finally, the way in which providers would be paid for telehealth visits was also impacted. The new expansions in coverage for telehealth also called for parity in the reimbursement of services. Basically this meant that doctors and other healthcare providers would be paid for telehealth services at the same rate as for in-person visits. There would be no “provider penalty” to choosing a virtual visit over face to face.

HIPAA Violations Using Telemedicine during COVID-19

HIPAA regulations did not change as a result of COVID-19. The same rules still apply. Providers must still safeguard patient privacy and fines for violations are steep. However, government efforts were made to encourage doctors to feel more comfortable about beginning to provide care using telehealth. With such a sudden huge need for telehealth services, there was a need for many providers to begin offering it quickly. As a result, HIPAA concessions were made.

The OCR or HHS Office for Civil Rights offered healthcare providers some reassurance in regards to possible HIPAA violations. A statement was released stating that the office would “exercise enforcement discretion and waive penalties for HIPAA violations against health care providers that serve patients in good faith through everyday communications technologies, such as FaceTime or Skype, during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency.”

This was meant to encourage more providers to offer telehealth services. Maintaining HIPAA compliance is important for healthcare providers. Under normal circumstances, many might have been reluctant to jump into offering virtual healthcare. Fear of HIPAA violations and the hefty fines associated with them could be a very real barrier. With reassurance that in these extraordinary times providers would be given the benefit of the doubt more could feel comfortable in offering their patients virtual care.