For behavioral health providers, telehealth has become essential for addressing the significant stress, anxiety, and depression brought on by the pandemic and its ensuing economic downturn. “According to Gettinger, telemedicine truly shines in psychiatry and psychology. ‘Patients are much more comfortable remotely than they are in a psychiatrist’s office,’ he said. ‘And it also gives the psychiatrist the chance to see the patient in their normal environment, which is a real advantage.’”
While previous regulations limited teletherapy services, both federal and state governments are working to make it easier for providers to offer virtual visits to consumers. Nationally, sanctions and penalties have been waived for noncompliance with certain HIPAA regulations for good faith provision of telehealth during the COVID-19 emergency, allowing the use of more technology and software. Medicare expanded reimbursement for telehealth visits and eased restrictions on services that can be received virtually. As of March 31, 2020, audio and video psychotherapy and psychological testing are now listed as approved Medicare telehealth services.
California has put in place similar guidelines for both managed care and private health plans, with penalties suspended for telehealth privacy violations. However, these new emergency state regulations have a stricter standard for privacy protection that require providers “to implement reasonable safeguards to protect patient information against intentional or unintentional impermissible uses and disclosures.” Following federal guidelines, Medi-Cal will be reimbursing telehealth visits at the same rate as in-person visits and the state has directed private insurance plans to do the same.
Given the eased restrictions, behavioral health providers now have increased ability to provide vital services while protecting the health of consumers and providers. Both existing and new consumers are covered under the regulations, allowing providers to address increased symptomatology occurring across the population. Providers are encouraged to follow best practices, especially regarding patient privacy, whenever possible. There are many resources, toolkits, webinars, etc. available to support getting started with telehealth. Additionally, providers should stay updated on regulations as changes and additional guidelines are being released. To this end, below is a list of resources and regulations for providers.
Notably, many of these changes are temporary through the public health emergency. “The field of psychiatry, working with our colleagues in the wider field of medicine, has an opportunity now to proactively look at the current telemedicine regulations and begin advocating for their longer-term maintenance. If we fail to do so, we run the risk of state and federal legislatures reinstituting barriers to telepsychiatry that are ultimately harmful to patient care.”