Telemedicine/Telehealth: Update on Regulatory Issues

This article was originally printed in Dallas County Medical Society’s Dallas Medical Journal, November 2019.

Telemedicine/telehealth update

This article will focus on updates to regulatory issues that could impact a physician’s practice of telemedicine or any other provider’s practice of telehealth.

The terms ‘telemedicine’ and ‘telehealth’ are often used interchangeably, but there is a growing difference. Telemedicine can be defined as a healthcare service delivered by a licensed physician (or someone having delegated authority from that physician) to a patient using telecommunications or information technology. Telehealth, in contrast, is usually a health care service using telecommunications or information technology by a general health professional. For example, receiving health consultations remotely regarding dietary issues or exercise regimens would be considered telehealth.

Changes in Medicare Reimbursement

Medicare has evolved, and is still evolving, in its approach to reimbursement for telehealth and telemedicine services. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid services (CMS) has been busy in this area and the following are some highlights of recent changes.

  • CMS is making changes to add additional originating sites and geographic exemptions for the treatment of end-stage renal disease and acute stroke. As it does every year, CMS also considered new codes for inclusion in its list of services eligible to be delivered through telehealth, and have added G0513 and G0514, both codes related to prolonged preventive services. CMS also added new codes (99453, 99454, and 99457) for remote physiologic monitoring, as well as a new code (99491) for chronic care management.
  • The agency is also experimenting with a program that would reimburse providers using Mobile Integrated Heath (MIH) services to reduce unnecessary emergency room visits. 
  • CMS also released its finalized 2019 Physician Fee Schedule containing many changes for Medicare. Among the changes, the proposed rule not only expands telehealth reimbursement, but communicates a new interpretation by CMS of the applicability of its statutory requirements for reimbursement of telehealth. Telehealth-delivered services under Medicare limits the use of telehealth to certain services, providers, technology (mainly live video) and patient locations (e.g., certain types of healthcare facilities in rural areas). The new rule expresses CMS’s belief that their obligations to impose those restrictions only apply to “the kinds of professional services explicitly enumerated in the statutory provisions, like professional consultation, office visits, and office psychiatry services.” Certain other kinds of services that are furnished remotely using communications technology are not considered “Medicare telehealth services” and, thus, are not subject to the restrictions. This includes interactions between a medical professional with a patient via remote communication technology. Thus, CMS has finalized reimbursement for virtual check-ins, remote evaluation of pre-recorded patient information and inter-professional internet consultation, which CMS believes fall outside the scope of Medicare telehealth services. All of these services have restrictions and physicians are strongly encouraged to analyze these restrictions carefully. 
  • CMS has also taken action for Medicare Advantage plans:
    • In a recent announcement about changes to the telehealth rules, it said, “Historically, Medicare Advantage plans have been able to offer more telehealth services, compared to Original Medicare, as part of their supplemental benefits.” CMS added that it will be more likely that plans will offer the additional telehealth benefits outside of supplemental benefits, whether they live in rural or urban areas.
    • In January, CMS updated its Value-Based Insurance Design (VBID) model of care, introduced in 2017, to give providers treating people on Medicare Advantage plans more leeway in using telehealth in place of in-person checkups.

Federal Enforcement Actions in Telemedicine/Telehealth

As telemedicine becomes more common, it has, unfortunately, attracted some shady characters looking for physicians to participate in illegal reimbursement schemes. Several recent indictments and guilty pleas show that federal prosecutors are looking closely at fraudulent billing for telemedicine services. To quote from a case involving an order of bogus genetic tests via telemedicine, the Department of Justice said:

“Often, the test results were not provided to the beneficiaries or were worthless to their actual doctors. Some of the defendants allegedly controlled a telemarketing network that lured hundreds of thousands of elderly and/or disabled patients into a criminal scheme that affected victims nationwide. The defendants allegedly paid doctors to prescribe CGx testing, either without any patient interaction or with only a brief telephonic conversation [emphasis added] with patients they had never met or seen.”

In another case, the Justice Department’s Criminal Division described a conspiracy as exploiting telemedicine technology [emphasis added] meant to help elderly and disable patients in need of health care.”

All these cases reinforce the fact that “medical necessity” is still required for any medical treatment and show that kickbacks and bribes are not lawful in telemedicine, just as they are illegal in all other facets of medical practice.

Federal Safe Harbors for Telemedicine Ventures

There are two Anti-Kickback Statute safe harbors particularly relevant to telemedicine: (1) when a provider receives free electronic prescribing technology or training; and, (2) when a provider receives free electronic health records software, information technology, or training. Thus, adherence to one of these safe harbors could, in theory, potentially reduce or eliminate associated kickback risks. In addition to regulatory considerations, the American Medical Association (AMA) emphasizes certain ethical consideration, including that:

  1. All physicians who participate in telemedicine have an ethical responsibility to disclose to the patient any financial or other interests in connection to the application or service;
  2. All physicians inform patients about the limitations of the service;
  3. Physicians advise about follow-up care if needed; and,
  4. Physicians encourage patients to inform their primary care provider about the online consultation.

Are Digital Health Devices “Telemedicine” or “Telehealth”?

There have been concerns that some interactions between digital health devices and healthcare providers could be construed as practicing “telehealth” or “telemedicine.” These concerns include the necessity of obtaining FDA approval for some devices that could be construed as a “medical device.” The FDA recently released six guidance documents as part of the agency’s continued focus on updating the regulatory stance on software and other digital health products as a medical device. The updated guidance documents reflect the need for a more flexible, risk-based approach to regulation that accommodates a rapidly evolving technological landscape

The 21st Century Cures Act, enacted in December 2016, amended the definition of “medical device” to exclude five distinct categories of software or digital health products – e.g., “off-the-shelf” devices or some “clinical decision support” devices — from the definition of “medical device.” These changes will take away some of the regulatory restrictions on bringing digital health devices to market and should make telehealth more convenient to physicians and patients.

All of these changes should provide more clarity about how to practice telemedicine and, as to the litigation, how not to practice telemedicine. 


Scott Chase headshot photo | Health Law

Scott Chase, JD, has practiced health law, corporate law, and intellectual property law for more than 40 years. Mr. Chase is Board Certified in Health Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Mr. Chase is a partner at Farrow-Gillespie Heat Witter, LLP. His primary practice focus is business transactions for physicians and healthcare facilities, as well as healthcare regulatory issues, such as the Affordable Care Act, HIPAA and peer review. Mr. Chase handles general corporate matters and trademark/copyright issues for physicians and also for a variety of non-healthcare clients.

surgery medical equipment

The Revised AdvaMed Code of Ethics on Commercial Interactions with U.S. Health Care Professionals

Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed) is a trade association for companies producing medical devices, diagnostic products, and health information systems. Relationships between AdvaMed member companies and Health Care Professionals (HCPs) are vital to the development of medical technologies, their safe and effective use, and medical research and education. However, these relationships can also create risk under state and federal laws. To avoid such risks, AdvaMed created the AdvaMed Code of Ethics on Interactions with U.S. Health Care Professionals (AdvaMed Code) in 1993. Recently, AdvaMed has announced revisions to its code to clarify and refine its discussion of interactions between HCPs and AdvaMed member companies. Revisions become effective January 1, 2020.

AdvaMed Code: New Sections

Jointly Conducted Education and Marketing Programs: Companies who partner with HCPs to conduct joint education and marketing programs, which must be designed to highlight medical technology and an HCP’s ability to diagnose or treat medical conditions, should comply with the following guidelines:

  • A legitimate need must exist for the company to engage in the activity for its own educational or marketing benefit;
  • Companies should establish controls to ensure that the decisions to engage in such arrangements are not an unlawful inducement;
  • Jointly conducted education and marketing programs should be balanced and should promote all parties;
  • All parties should make equitable contributions towards the activity and costs of the program; and
  • The arrangement should be documented in a written agreement.

Communicating Information for the Safe and Effective Use of Medical Technology: Communicating information about unapproved or uncleared (off-label) uses for approved or cleared products should be in accordance with the code’s established principles. These principles recognize the industry’s responsibility to communicate medical and scientific information to achieve positive patient outcomes and to support public health. The code’s off-label communication guidelines reflect recent judicial opinions affirming First Amendment protections for truthful and non-misleading off-label speech. Industry appropriate communications can include:

  • Proper dissemination of peer-reviewed scientific and medical journal articles, reference texts, and clinical practice guidelines;
  • Presentations at education and medical meetings; and
  • Discussions with consultants and HCPs to obtain advice or feedback.

Companies should evaluate and implement these guidelines in light of existing FDA laws and the HHS/OIG instruction on off-label communications.

Company Representatives Providing Technical Support in the Clinical Setting: Company representatives may play an important role in the clinical setting by providing technical support on the safe and effective use of medical technology. For company representatives providing technical support, representatives should . . .

  • Be present in the clinical setting only at the request of and with supervision by an HCP;
  • Be transparent that they are acting on behalf of the company in a technical support capacity;
  • Not interfere with an HCP’s independent clinical decision-making;
  • Comply with applicable hospital or facility policies and requirements; and
  • Not eliminate an expense that the HCP should otherwise incur while providing patient care.

AdvaMed Code: Consolidations and Clarifications

Cornerstone Values:  Innovation, education, integrity, respect, responsibility, and transparency form the basis of the updated AdvaMed Code. It directs medical technology companies to review all interactions with HCPs in light of these values and to avoid interactions designed to circumvent the code.

Scope and Applicability: The updated AdvaMed Code applies to all interactions regardless whether an interaction occurs outside the United States (such as at a conference or other event). The updated code clarifies that for companies with multiple lines of business, the code applies only to the company’s interactions linked to medical technology, including all interactions related to combination products that include a medical technological component (i.e., combination of biologic devices and drug products).

Consulting: Although the content regarding consulting remains mostly unchanged, the updated AdvaMed Code adds clarifying language defining what constitutes a “legitimate need” for the consultation. According to the code, a legitimate need arises when a company requires the services of an HCP to achieve a proper business objective. However, engaging an HCP for the purpose of generating business directly from such HCP (or health care provider affiliated with the HCP) is not a proper business objective.  

The AdvaMed Code also explains how a company can establish “fair market value.” A third party may assist in developing an approach to assess fair market value, but in all instances, a company should incorporate objective and verifiable criteria. Companies are encouraged to document their methods to evaluate whether compensation reflects the fair market value of the services provided.

Consolidations: The AdvaMed Code consolidates the following sections:

  • Industry conducted training, education, and other business meetings into a comprehensive section that provides parameters for all industry-conducted programs;
  • Third-party education, charitable, and research programs into a comprehensive section regarding grants, donations, and commercial sponsorships; and
  • Meals, travel, lodging and venue sections into a comprehensive section that encourages companies to avoid selecting a setting because of its entertainment or recreational facilities, as well as encouraging companies to develop meal policies and review benchmarking information.

Next Steps

The updated AdvaMed Code notes that it does not replace any state laws, regulations, or codes that contain stricter requirements. Certain states, including California, Connecticut, and Nevada, have made the code’s provisions mandatory. Alleged violations of the federal Anti-Kickback Statute may provide a basis for whistleblowers or the government to file cases alleging that AdvaMed Code noncompliance is evidence of improper conduct. To reduce compliance risks, medical technology companies and HCPs should consider whether the updates to the AdvaMed Code warrant changes to their policies, procedures and practices, and contracts regarding interactions with one another. The delayed effective date of the new Code is intended to provide time to conduct this review.

Legal Assistance

Medical companies and Health Care Providers are well-advised to seek legal counsel to conduct a review of the paperwork governing their interactions. The health law attorneys at Farrow-Gillespie Heath Witter LLP can assist in that review.


Author Scott Chase is a health law and corporate attorney at Farrow-Gillespie Heath Witter LLP.  Mr. Chase has been named to the lists of Best Lawyers in America (U.S. News & World Report), Texas Super Lawyers (a Thomson Reuters service), and Best Lawyers in Dallas (D Magazine) in every year for more than a decade.

Stark Law FGHW 2

What Is the Stark Law?

Federal Stark law applies alongside anti-kickback law to create strict civil penalties for any physician who makes a “self-referral.”  Specifically, the law bars a physician from referring a Medicare or Medicaid patient to receive any designated health care service from any person or entity with which the physician has a financial relationship.  This relationship could be an ownership interest, investment interest, or structure compensation agreement.

Unlike anti-kickback laws, Stark is a strict-liability statute, meaning that any violation, whether intentional or not, leads to liability.

The parameters of the Stark law include specific carve-outs that allow medical providers to enter mutually-beneficial transactions with impunity.  These carve-outs are known as “safe harbors” and are detailed and complex. To avoid potential violations, health care providers should review all transactions carefully with the aid of experienced counsel.

FGHW Anti-Kickback Laws 2

What Is the “Anti-Kickback” Statute?

Physicians and health care other providers face numerous prohibitions against self-referrals and against making referrals in exchange for remuneration.  The federal Anti-Kickback Statute is a criminal law that prohibits the knowing and willful payment of remuneration in exchange for referrals of services payable by federal health programs, which include health care services for Medicare or Medicaid patients.  The law prohibits any person from offering, paying, soliciting, or receiving anything of value—whether it is money or something less obvious, such as free product, tickets, hotel vouchers, speaking fees, or lowered rent payments.  This law creates restrictions on virtually all business dealings involving physicians, including dealings with landlords, drug companies, device manufacturers, physical therapy clinics, hospitals, or other physicians.

Anti-kickback violations must be knowing and willful for criminal liability to attach; successful prosecution can lead to fines of up to $25,000 per violation and prison time.  Further, any doctor who submits false Medicare or Medicaid claims, whether knowingly or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity, also faces civil liability under the False Claims Act.

The parameters of anti-kickback law include specific carve-outs that allow medical providers to enter mutually-beneficial transactions with impunity.  These carve-outs are known as “safe harbors” and are detailed and complex. To avoid potential violations, health care providers should review all transactions carefully with the aid of experienced counsel.