With the implementation of the ACA, the federal government announced the move toward including telehealth services in health care coverage.
What’s the issue?
Despite the fact that no other developed country even comes close to the United States in annual spending on health care, 20 percent of Americans still live in areas where shortages of physicians and health care specialists exist, and the United States still ranks the lowest overall among eleven industrialized countries on measures of health system efficiency, access to care, equity, and healthy lives. Many believe that the answer to issues of cost and access in the US health system lies in telehealth, which increases access to care, alleviates travel costs and burdens, and allows more convenient treatment and chronic condition monitoring.
With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the federal government announced the move toward encouraging and including telehealth services in health care coverage. The ACA, however, only implemented telehealth at the federal level through Medicare, in selected circumstances; the power to determine which, if any, telehealth services is covered by Medicaid still remains largely within the powers of individual states. Also, states can govern private payer telehealth reimbursement policies. This means that telehealth implementation varies from state to state in terms of what services providers will be reimbursed for delivering, as well as what sort of “parity,” defined as “equivalent treatment of analogous services,” is expected between in-person health services reimbursements and telehealth reimbursements. This variation affects providers’ ability to implement telehealth options, thereby reducing the patients’ ability to use these services and become comfortable with the telehealth processes. Consequently, telehealth faces significant obstacles in becoming an accepted and used health care option for individuals, and states and the nation as a whole cannot fully realize the cost savings of telehealth.
With telehealth technologies, providers can deliver high-quality care at a lower cost, a critical imperative in the accelerating era of value-based payment. On balance, the benefits of telehealth are substantial, assuming that more efforts will reduce or address the risks and challenges.
To reap the benefits of telehealth services, states are likely to move toward full parity laws for telehealth services. Without parity, there are limited incentives for the development of telehealth or for providers to move toward telehealth services. If there are no incentives to use telehealth, then providers will continue to focus on in-person care, which will keep health care costs high, continue to create access issues, and possibly provide lesser standards of care for chronic disease patients who benefit from remote monitoring.
In addition, states are likely to gradually remove restrictions from their parity laws that limit providers, locations, and services, and focus on integrating telehealth into regular health care coverage. It is possible that reimbursement will eventually cover store-and-forward services and remote monitoring, while leaving open the likelihood of covering services that fall outside of these categories, such as mobile applications and devices.
As the United States moves from uncoordinated, volume-based delivery of health services to an integrated, patient-centric, value-based model, health care delivery will increasingly focus on achieving higher-quality care, improved care access, and lower costs. In enabling health care organizations to provide high-quality, “anytime, anywhere” care to patients and operate more cost effectively, telehealth programs and play an important role in achieving these goals.