COVID-19 clears the way for telehealth to treat Tennessee workplace injuries

By Lillian Hartgrove, State Board of Education Chairman
Special to the UCBJ

One of the most fundamental rights of an injured worker under the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Law is the right to medical treatment for a work-related injury or illness. Typically, this medical treatment is provided by a medical provider chosen by the injured worker from a list of doctors – i.e. the medical panel.  

The statute requires that the medical panel consist of providers who are located in the employee’s community, with the clear intent being that the medical provider needs to be located near enough to where the injured worker lives so that the injured worker can be treated by the medical provider without any undue burden or expense of excessive travel. This entire framework assumes that the injured worker will receive treatment by physically going to the doctor’s office and by undertaking an in-person medical visit with the provider. Indeed, that is exactly what was required under the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation law – that is, until the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before COVID-19, the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Law did not provide for, nor did it allow, an injured worker to receive treatment for his or her injury via a telehealth visit. However, that has now changed. 

The first step occurred on March 17, 2020, when the Trump Administration announced expanded Medicare telehealth coverage to enable beneficiaries to receive a wider range of healthcare services from their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility. Prior to this announcement, Medicare was only allowed to pay clinicians for telehealth services such as routine visits in certain circumstances. 

For example, the beneficiary receiving the services must live in a rural area and travel to a local medical facility to get telehealth services from a doctor in a remote location. In addition, the beneficiary would generally not be allowed to receive telehealth services in their home. President Trump’s announcement came at a critical time as these new flexibilities would help healthcare institutions across the nation to offer some medical services to patients remotely, so that healthcare facilities like emergency departments and doctor’s offices remain available to deal with the most urgent cases and to reduce the risk of additional infections.

On March 25, 2019, the Tennessee Bureau of Workers’ Compensation issued a notice stating, for the first time, that a panel-chosen physician may utilize telehealth in the treatment of an injured worker. The notice clarified that there is no specific provision in the law that addresses the subject of a telehealth provider to be listed on the medical panel.  Payment was directed to be made in accordance with all guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), including those announced on March 17, 2020. 

The Tennessee Bureau of Workers’ Compensation provided even further guidance on April 1, 2020, by issuing its Temporary Guidance on Telehealth for Workers’ Compensation.  This guidance specifically allows for telehealth in the context of workers’ compensation during the COVID-19 national emergency, to provide appropriate care continuation and to improve functional considerations for both new and established patients. The Bureau required that telehealth visits be conducted by telephone only or by video/audio links with the express agreement by both patient and provider. Although recommended to have the appropriate Tennessee licenses, certain requirements were waived for specific qualified providers. Moreover, certain telecommunications applications not previously allowed are now permitted for use during this period, including Skype and Facetime. It is anticipated that the provider will still make a good faith effort to protect patient privacy, and records should be kept as if the visit were in-person. Medical providers may bill for the visits using standard billing forms, and the bill should be paid pursuant to the applicable Medical Fee Schedule. 

On April 30, 2020, CMS announced that it was waiving certain requirements of federal law which specify the types of practitioners that may bill for the services when furnished as telehealth services. The waiver of these requirements expands the types of health care professionals who can provide telehealth services. As a result, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists were permitted to use telehealth to provide many Medicare services.

On May 1, 2020, this issue was also addressed by Gov. Bill Lee in Executive Order No. 32. That Executive Order addressed physical, occupational, and speech therapy via telemedicine for workers’ compensation claimants, and it temporarily suspended certain existing workers’ compensation regulations to specifically allow those types of services to be delivered via telemedicine. The Order also specified that the billing for such services should be reimbursed as if the services were delivered in-person. 

As you can see from the above, in only about a month and half, we have gone from not being able to use telehealth at all in the context of workers’ compensation, to being able to use it routinely as a vital component of providing uninterrupted medical care for injured workers.  Not only does this help the injured worker by providing continued care, it also helps employers and their workers’ compensation carriers by helping to ensure that workers’ compensation claims will continue to move toward resolution in an orderly fashion. After all, a claim cannot typically be resolved until the employee has completed his or her medical treatment with the authorized treating physician and placed at maximum medical improvement. 

Before the introduction of telehealth, COVID-19 presented quite an obstacle in this regard since most non-emergency medical care was placed on hold, including the necessary follow-up care for work injuries. However, the new availability of telehealth should benefit both injured workers and their employers by allowing that medical treatment to get back on track – at least to some extent. 

Obviously, telehealth is not the right solution for every situation. There will always be a need for in-person medical treatment, particularly at the beginning and end of treatment, and for direct procedures. However, for routine follow up care and therapy, telehealth will sometimes be the best solution to keep the claim moving forward in a timely fashion. 

While the above-described measures by the Tennessee Bureau of Workers’ Compensation are temporary and apply only during the COVID-19 pandemic, be on the lookout for more permanent measures. The benefits of telehealth under the right circumstances cannot be questioned, and it seems very likely that telehealth in some form is here to stay. 

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