On May 26th, CMS released a proposed rule setting out new credentialing and privileging processes for physicians and other healthcare professionals who provide telemedicine services, a move which may lesson burdens on healthcare providers considering telemedicine options. Further, next week CMS is expected to release an additional proposed rule re additional services which may be reimbursed by Medicare if provided via telemedicine. Both rules, if they become law, could increase opportunities for growth in telemedicine companies.

Proposed Rule re Cross-Credentialing

Prior to January 1, 1999, Medicare coverage for services delivered via a telecommunications system was limited to services that did not require a face-to-face encounter under the traditional model of medical care, such as interpretation of an x-ray or electrocardiogram or electroencephalogram tracing, and cardiac pacemaker analysis. Then on October 1, 2001, section 223 of the Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP Benefits Improvement Protection Act of 2000 significantly expanded Medicare telemedicine services services to include consultations, office visits, office psychiatry services, and certain other services that have been added over the years. However, in addition to state licensure and other issues faced by hospitals and physicians providing these services, one challenge for hospitals has been the process of granting credentials to these physicians. Under existing Medicare Conditions of Participation (CoP), the governing body of a hospital must make all privileging decisions based upon the recommendations of its staff, after the staff has examined and verified the credentials of practitioners applying for privileges. Thus a hospital must conduct individual appraisals of its prospective members and examine the credentials of each candidate to make a privileging recommendation to the governing body. Hospitals may use third-party credentialing verification organizations, but the governing body remains responsible for the privileging decisions.

By contrast, the proposed rule released on May 26th would allow the governing body of a hospital whose patients receive telemedicine services to grant privileges based on recommendations from its medical staff, which, in turn, would rely on information provided by the distant-site hospital. In the proposed rule, CMS would require the local hospital to verify that:

1. The distant-site hospital is a Medicare-participating hospital.

2. The physician is privileged at his own hospital and that the distant-site hospital provides the local hospital a current list of the physician’s privileges.

3. The physician holds a license issued or recognized by the state in which the local hospital is located.

4. The local hospital has evidence that the distant-site hospital conducts an internal review of the physician’s performance of his privileges.

The local hospital must provide relevant information to the distant-site hospital for its use in periodically evaluating the physician, including all adverse events that might have resulted from telemedicine services provided by the physician to the local hospital’s patients, as well as all complaints the local hospital has received about the physician. CMS believes its proposal would "allow for the advancement of telemedicine nationwide while still protecting the health and safety of patients." CMS is currently taking comments on the proposed rule through July 26th.

Anticipated Proposed Rule re Additional Telemedicine Services

According to the American Telemedicine Association, on or about July 13th CMS is expected to release an additional proposed rule re additional services which may be reimbursed by Medicare if provided via telemedicine. At a minimum, these two proposed rules suggest a greater degree of acceptance of telemedicine services than ever before. If the proposed rules becomes law, many hospitals will likely take advantage of such cross-credentialing options and opportunities to bill Medicare for additional telemedicine services, and telemedicine providers may flourish in the process.