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The indictment, arrest, and arraignment of Ruthia He, the founder, CEO, and clinical president of Done Global (Done), and David Brody, clinical president of Done and the sole shareholder of Done Health, P.C. (PC) in connection with their alleged criminal conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, commit health care fraud, and obstruct justice may bring heightened scrutiny to behavioral health telemedicine companies and other virtual health platforms. The seven-count indictment represents the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) first criminal drug distribution prosecutions related to telemedicine prescribing. The prosecution of the defendants is proceeding in federal court in the Northern District of California and several additional Done personnel including an executive, physician, and nurse practitioners are similarly being prosecuted.

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On May 8, 2024, the U.S. House of Representatives Ways & Means Committee passed a bipartisan bill entitled the “Preserving Telehealth, Hospital and Ambulance Access Act” by a vote of 41-0, which will potentially have far-reaching consequences for Medicare beneficiaries, health care providers, and the telehealth and PBM industries.

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On October 10, 2023, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) published another temporary rule extending the COVID-era telemedicine flexibilities that allow physicians and other prescribers to prescribe controlled substances without an in-person evaluation.  With just over a month to go before the expiration of the first set of flexibilities, the DEA announced that the telemedicine flexibilities, which have been in place since March 2020, will be extended through the end of 2024 in order to give the agency more time to consider feedback received in response to the proposed rule, which was announced in March of this year.  As a reminder, under the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act of 2008, providers may not prescribe controlled substances without an in-person visit, unless an exception applies.  The COVID public health emergency triggered one such exception, which lead to the telehealth flexibilities. 

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As we previously covered, in March 2023, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced a proposed rule on prescribing controlled substances via telehealth, aimed at addressing the “telehealth cliff” that was expected to occur once the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) ends on May 11, 2023. The proposed rule provided some flexibility, but required a much more restrictive framework for prescribing controlled substances via telehealth compared to the flexibilities available during the PHE. During the 30-day comment period following the announcement of the proposed rule, the DEA received over 38,000 comments, which the agency says it is closely reviewing. Many commentators across the health care industry criticized the proposed rule because the in-person examination requirement would limit access to care. The DEA, working with the Department of Health and Human Services, is also considering revisions to the proposed rule. 

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With just over two months before the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) expected expiration on May 11, 2023, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has finally announced its proposed rule on prescribing controlled substances via telehealth. This post provides continued coverage of telehealth updates and dissects what this DEA's proposed rule could entail. 

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The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE), which was originally declared nearly three years ago, has been renewed through April 2023. As we’ve previously covered, the PHE allowed federal and state regulators to relax certain telehealth requirements, which has led to a rapid expansion in the availability of telehealth services. The Biden Administration has committed to provide at least 60 days’ notice prior to terminating the PHE or allowing it to expire, but several news outlets are reporting that this could be the final extension. 

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The Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) Health Care Subgroup recently published an expansive report that highlighted the sheer volume of expanded access to and use of telehealth services in certain federal health care programs during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report also focused on program integrity risks related to this expanded use and included recommended safeguards for future oversight of telehealth services.

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Covered Entities and Business Associates should promptly and carefully review their use of online tracking technologies on their websites and mobile apps following a bulletin (Bulletin) published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) last week.  The Bulletin addresses multiple facets of compliance with HIPAA when using online third-party tracking technologies (Tracking Technologies).  In doing so, OCR significantly expands its interpretation of the definition of Protected Health Information (PHI) to include, in some instances, identifiable information gathered by Tracking Technologies where a user visits a website and does not interact with the entity in any other way. In its Bulletin, OCR interprets the act of an individual visiting a website as evidence of a relationship or anticipated future relationship between the visitor and the entity.

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Many of the flexibilities upon which telehealth providers have come to rely in recent years are tied to the federal Public Health Emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic (PHE). As we move into Fall 2022, we review the current state of the PHE flexibilities around Medicare reimbursement and prescription of controlled substances, examine pending legislation that, if passed, would bring greater certainty to patients and providers, and discuss what we know about the status of a possible PHE extension.

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On June 22, 2022, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) issued guidance advocating for Congress and federal agencies to make permanent certain telehealth access measures for people struggling with substance use disorders (SUD). The guidance, titled Telehealth and Substance Use Disorder Services in the Era of Covid-19: Review and Recommendations (Guidance), made four recommendations geared at increasing telehealth access, utilization, and equity among individuals who have experienced an SUD. This blogpost with provide an analysis of the four recommendations and their implications. 

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As we’ve previously covered, while Congress has acted to extend certain COVID-era telehealth flexibilities (mostly related to Medicare coverage) beyond the Public Health Emergency (PHE), the future of prescribing controlled substances via telehealth is uncertain.  Although the American Telemedicine Association and other industry groups continue to advocate for changes to allow telehealth providers to prescribe controlled substances in certain circumstances, without further action by Congress or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), telehealth providers who prescribe controlled substances will need to conduct an in-person examination of the patient once the PHE ends. 

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Last week saw a lot of great news in the world of telehealth. On March 15, President Biden signed into law H.R. 2471, the “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022”, which extends many of the Medicare telehealth flexibilities put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic for a period following the end of the Public Health Emergency (“PHE”). The same day, the OIG issued a report highlighting the positive impact telehealth had on increasing access for beneficiaries during the first year of the pandemic. Then, during a press conference on March 18, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said that HHS will seek to sustain and expand access to telehealth services after the public health emergency ends. While these developments signal the continued expansion of telehealth, there is still some uncertainty surrounding coverage, reimbursement and licensure flexibilities that have allowed telehealth to flourish for the past two years.

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On Monday, February 7, 2022, U.S. Senators Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, and Todd Young, R-Indiana, introduced the Telehealth Extension and Evaluation Act, which if passed, would extend several of the telehealth waivers for two years after the end of the federal public health emergency (PHE). See our previous coverage of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic. The PHE was most recently renewed for an additional 90 days on January 16, 2022. Since January 2020, providers who pivoted to telehealth in order to deliver care to their patients during the pandemic have had to closely monitor the status of the PHE, which the Secretary of HHS is only authorized to extend for 90 days at a time. Passage of the proposed legislation would provide some much-needed certainty and would give providers time to transition back to in-person care where necessary. It would also further the growth and expansion of telehealth services and continued integration into our health care delivery system.
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Last week, CMS announced its final Physician Fee Schedule Payment Policies (the “Final Rule”), which will become effective January 1, 2022. The Final Rule included several updates to Medicare coverage of telehealth services, including a number of COVID-19 related changes that will be extended or be made permanent. As previously covered, while temporary orders allowing expanded use of telehealth have increased access to care across the country during the public health emergency (“PHE”), the regulatory environment for telehealth has always been somewhat unsettled. The changes in the Final Rule described below signal a move towards increased access to telehealth for Medicare beneficiaries as regulators acknowledge the potential benefits of these alternate methods of delivering care.
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The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced its latest national enforcement action related to health care fraud (National Enforcement Action) in which DOJ filed criminal charges against 142 defendants. The National Enforcement Action, which alleges losses of $1.4 billion due to false or fraudulent billings, follows similar DOJ “take downs” over the last several years in that it focuses on telemedicine providers and the opioid crisis. This post provides five takeaways from the National Enforcement Action.
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As we’ve previously covered, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a major increase in the prevalence of telehealth services, due in large part to regulatory flexibilities at the federal and state levels. Beginning in March 2020, state Medicaid programs across the country loosened requirements for coverage of telehealth services provided to Medicaid beneficiaries, reducing barriers by allowing audio-only services and covering a broader scope of services delivered via telehealth. The increase in telehealth has resulted in improved access to behavioral health services in particular, but according to an OIG report issued earlier this week, state Medicaid programs will need to increase their oversight of these services if the telehealth flexibilities become permanent.
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As previously discussed, many of the telehealth flexibilities in place during the COVID-19 pandemic are set to expire at the end of the federal Public Health Emergency (PHE), unless federal and state legislators act to make the changes permanent. A recent bill introduced by Representative Robin Kelly (D-IL) suggests that Congress is interested in expanding access to telehealth services for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries if the benefits of increased access to telehealth can be demonstrated. According to a press release issued by Representative Kelly’s office, “Telehealth has the potential to help equalize healthcare access for underserved populations. However, we need data to understand utilization, cost, fraud, privacy and how to serve those left behind by the digital divide.”
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Over the past year the telehealth landscape has been a patchwork of temporary waivers and regulations, expanding access during the COVID-19 pandemic but leaving providers and patients uncertain about whether the positive coverage and reimbursement changes and relaxation of pre-pandemic restrictions would continue in the future. In recent weeks, we have seen a number of state actions making permanent changes to expand access to telehealth. These changes suggest a positive trend towards making telehealth an integral part of the care delivery system, although the complicated regulatory frameworks still present challenges to providers seeking to treat patients via telehealth.
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On February 24, 2021, DOJ’s Criminal Division Fraud Section published its annual year-end summary. The Fraud Section focuses on prosecuting white-collar crime. The report summarizes enforcement activity in the past year and discusses notable cases from the Fraud Section’s three litigation units: (1) the Health Care Fraud (HCF) Unit; (2) the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) Unit; and (3) the Market Integrity and Major Frauds (MIMF) Unit. In summarizing the Fraud Section’s main achievements from 2020, the report also provides valuable insights on what lies ahead for the Fraud Section in 2021. This post focuses on the health care enforcement portion of the Fraud Section’s report.
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As COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise in areas of the country, telehealth continues to play an important role in the delivery of healthcare, especially to those most vulnerable to the virus. Existing telehealth waivers continue in effect under the Public Health Emergency, and new legislation seeks to expand telehealth access through home health services. Plus, join us for a webinar on the future of telehealth.
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