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Coronavirus (Covid-19) Creates Opportunities for Use of Telehealth in Florida

I. Introduction

For several years, we have discussed the practical benefits of using Telehealth or Telemedicine as a supplement to traditional medical care and not as a replacement. However, we are facing a moment in history where Emergency Rooms are becoming increasingly overwhelmed and don’t have the staff, resources, healthcare professionals, respirators, ventilators and other equipment necessary to adequately and expeditiously treat patients.  Telemedicine is becoming more essential now that countries around the world are paralyzed due to the spread of the Coronavirus which has resulted in a pandemic.

Telemedicine is useful for those individuals who are unable or unwilling to travel to their healthcare provider while allowing them to receive the same level of care and treatment through the use of medical technology. Telemedicine is particularly useful during times like this when individuals have to self-quarantine and when a State of Emergency has been issued as a measure to minimize the spread of the virus. Telemedicine may have the ability to assist healthcare professionals by remotely diagnosing conditions, such as the Coronavirus without putting the health of others in jeopardy. The Coronavirus can cause respiratory problems, among others, and the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions regardless of age are particularly susceptible to the effects of contracting the virus, including death.

II. Florida Law

Now is as good a time as any for those who are interested in incorporating Telehealth into their practice to become familiar with the Florida laws that govern its use. Prior to the passage of House Bill 23 (Chapter 2019 – 137), the Standards for Telemedicine practice were governed by Florida Administrative Code 64B8-9.0141 (for Medical Doctors) and 64B15-14.0081, which have since been repealed and replaced by this House Bill and Florida Statute §456.47.

          A. What is Telehealth under H.B. 23

“Telehealth” is defined as the use of synchronous or asynchronous telecommunications technology by a telehealth provider to provide healthcare services, including, but not limited to, assessment, diagnosis, consultation, treatment, and monitoring of a patient; transfer of medical data; patient and professional health-related education; public health services; and health administration. The term does not include audio-only telephone calls, email messages, or facsimile transmissions. A “Telehealth Provider” means any individual who provides healthcare and related services using telehealth and who is licensed or certified under the appropriate Florida Statute or who is licensed under a multi-state health care licensure compact of which Florida is a member state or is a registered out-of-state telehealth provider. A telehealth provider and a patient may be in separate locations when telehealth is used to provide healthcare services to a patient. It should be noted that it is not a violation for a non-physician telehealth provider using telehealth and acting within his or her relevant scope of practice.

          B. Telehealth Prescribing and Recordkeeping

A telehealth provider may not use telehealth to prescribe a controlled substance unless the controlled substance is prescribed for the following: (1) the treatment of a psychiatric disorder; (2) inpatient treatment at a hospital; (3) the treatment of a patient receiving hospice services: or (4) the treatment of a resident of a nursing home facility.

A telehealth provider must document in the patient’s medical record the healthcare services rendered using telehealth according to the same standard as used for in-person services. Medical records, including video, audio, electronic, or other records generated as a result of providing such services are confidential and must comply with HIPAA requirements.

          C. Out-Of-State Telehealth Providers

                1. Registration of Out-Of-State Telehealth Providers

A healthcare professional not licensed in Florida may provide healthcare services to a patient located in this state using telehealth if the healthcare professional registers with the applicable board and provides those healthcare services within the applicable scope of practice established by Florida law. In order for an out-of-state healthcare professional to be registered they have to prove or complete the following: (1) complete an application to provide telehealth services as an out-of-state provider; (2) have an unencumbered occupational license that was issued by another state, the District of Columbia, or a possession or territory of the United States and that is substantially similar to the license issued to a Florida-licensed provider. Foreign trained providers without a valid Florida-professional license are ineligible to register to provide telehealth services in Florida; (3) has not been the subject of disciplinary action relating to his or her license during the 5-year period immediately preceding the submission of their application; (4) designates a duly appointed registered agent for service of process in this state; and (5) demonstrates to the board that he or she maintains professional liability coverage or financial responsibility.

A healthcare professional may not register if his or her license to provide healthcare services is subject to a pending disciplinary investigation or action, or has been revoked in any state or jurisdiction. If you are a duly registered healthcare professional, you must notify the appropriate board of any restrictions placed on your license to practice, or any disciplinary action taken or pending against you, from any state or jurisdiction within 5 days after the restriction is placed or disciplinary action is initiated or taken.

               2. Insurance Coverage

As noted above, a registered provider must maintain professional liability coverage or proof of financial responsibility, that includes coverage or financial responsibility for telehealth services provided to patients not located in the provider’s home state.

               3. Physical Presence

An out-of-state healthcare professional may not open an office in Florida and may not provide in-person healthcare services to patients located in this state.

               4. Disciplinary Action Against Out-Of-State Telehealth Provider

The board may take disciplinary action against an out-of-state telehealth provider if the registrant: (1) fails to notify the applicable board of any adverse actions taken against his or her license; (2) has restrictions placed on or disciplinary action taken against his or her license in any state or jurisdiction; (3) violates any of the requirements of this section; or (4) commits any act that constitutes grounds for disciplinary action under the applicable practice act for Florida-licensed providers. Disciplinary action may include suspension or revocation of the provider’s registration or the issuance of a reprimand or letter of concern. A suspension may be accompanied by a corrective action plan the completion of which may lead to the suspended registration being reinstated according to the rules adopted by the board.

          D. Venue

Any act that constitutes the delivery of health are services is deemed to occur at the place where the patient is physically located at the time the act is performed or in the patient’s county of residence.

          E. Exemptions

A healthcare professional who is not licensed to provide healthcare services in this state but who holds an active license to provide healthcare services in another state or jurisdiction, and who provides healthcare services using telehealth to a patient located in this state, is not subject to the registration requirement if the services are provided: (1) in response to an emergency medical condition; or (2) in consultation with a healthcare professional licensed in this state who has ultimate authority over the diagnosis and care of the patient.

          F. Reimbursement for Telehealth Services

A contract between a health insurer issuing major medical comprehensive coverage through an individual or group policy and a telehealth provider must be voluntary between the insurer and the provider and must establish mutually acceptable payment rates or payment methodologies for services provided through telehealth. Any contract provision that distinguishes between payment rates or payment methodologies for services provided through telehealth and the same services provided without the use of telehealth must be initialed by the telehealth provider.

 

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It should be noted that I am not your lawyer (unless you have presently retained my services through a retainer agreement). This post is not intended as legal advice, it is purely educational and informational, and no attorney-client relationship shall result after reading it. Please consult your own attorney for legal advice. If you do not have one and would like to retain my legal services, please contact me using the contact information listed above.

 

All information and references made to laws, rules, regulations, and advisory opinions were accurate based on the law as it existed at this time, but laws are constantly evolving. Please contact me to be sure that the law which will govern your business is current. Thank you.

What to do if I Received an AHCA Administrative Complaint or Notice of Intent?

Why did I receive this Administrative Complaint or Notice of Intent?

If you have received an Administrative Complaint from the Agency for Health Care Administration (“AHCA”) it means that they are alleging that your healthcare facility (i.e. Nursing Home, Assisted Living Facilities, Skilled Nursing Facilities, or Home Health Agency) has violated one or more sections of the Florida Statutes, the Florida Administrative Code, or both. AHCA will then make the argument that because you have violated these laws that your facility’s license should be revoked or suspended and you may be required to pay an administrative fine. Typically, you have 21 days to respond to the complaint by disputing the allegations or admitting the allegations. Depending on your response and how your case is handled could have a serious long-term impact on you and your practice, which could possibly lead to criminal charges.

AHCA may conduct unannounced inspections on any of the facilities listed above. After AHCA has conducted its survey, the administrator for the facility will be provided with a survey report detailing AHCA’s findings including any deficiencies. These deficiencies will be provided to you in the Statement of Deficiencies.  Deficiencies must be fixed within thirty days after notification and another ten days to present a Plan of Correction with the corrective measures that must be taken to comply with your license’s requirements. Many times, these unannounced inspections occur if an individual has decided to file a complaint against your facility. AHCA then seeks to substantiate those claims that were made by that individual.

How Might this Impact my Healthcare Facility or License?

AHCA maintains a list of all actions that were filed against your facility and if they were resolved via settlement agreements, defaults and dismissals, or by recommended orders. These three outcomes can have different impacts on your license and ability to practice. They are all part of the public record and they may impact the type of penalty that your receive for future infractions.

What to expect at the Division of Administrative Hearings?

The Administrative Hearing before a Florida Administrative Law Judge is governed by the Florida Administrative Code, Florida Rules of Evidence, and the Florida Administrative Procedure Act, F.S. Chapter 120. If you decide to deny the allegations and pursue an Administrative Hearing before the Division of Administrative Hearing (“DOAH”) the case can still be closed or settled prior to entry of a Final Order by the judge if the parties can agree to negotiated terms.  Hearings can either be informal or formal.

At the hearing, if brought by AHCA, the burden is on AHCA to prove “clear and convincing evidence” that the healthcare facility failed to act in a certain way or acted in a way that was otherwise prohibited. If AHCA can’t prove this then that specific Count, Notice of Intent, or the entire Administrative Complaint may be dismissed.

Examples of Violations

Here are some examples of violations that healthcare facilities may get dinged for by AHCA:

  1. Director of Nursing (“DON”) – AHCA requires that a home health agency that provides skilled nursing case must have a director of nursing at all times. If a DON ceases working at that facility the HHA must inform AHCA within 10 days or risk a Class II deficiency.
  2. Advertisements – A person that offers or advertises to the public a service for which registration is required (i.e. nursing home or home health services) must include in its advertisement the registration number issued by AHCA.
  3. Office Hours – Home Health Agency administrator or DON, or their alternates, must be available to the public for any eight consecutive hours between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday of each week. Available to the public means being readily available on the premises or by telecommunications. If an AHCA surveyor arrives on the premises to conduct an unannounced survey and no authorized person is there to provide access to patient records within one hour of the arrival of the surveyor then they have violated licensure requirements. Further, that list of current patients must be provided to the surveyor within two hours of arrival if requested. Failure to do either may be grounds for denial or revocation of the agency license.

Nursing Homes and related Health Care Facilities, such as Home Health Agencies have many statutory requirements and AHCA doesn’t care whether your intended to violate the requirements or not. They will pursue action against you. For example, there are certain Director of Nursing and Administrator requirements (i.e. staffing requirements, notifications to AHCA, limitations on staffing services, etc.) that Nursing Homes and Home Health Agencies must adhere to or risk fines and suspension of their license.

What are the Penalties?

Four different class violations exist, and the fines vary depending on the seriousness of the violation. For example, a Class II violation permits AHCA to impose an administrative fine in the amount of $5,000 for each occurrence and each day that the violation exists, while Class III only imposes a fine not to exceed $1,000. Additionally, AHCA may impose costs related to an investigation that results in successful prosecution, excluding costs associated with an attorney’s time. In other words, if you decide to fight the allegations and you are unsuccessful you may have to pay thousands of dollars in fines and fees related to your investigation. In addition to a fine for a certain class violations AHCA may request revocation of your license.

Florida Statute §400.474 lists various actions taken by a home health agency that are grounds for disciplinary action and the administrative penalties that may be imposed by AHCA. AHCA considers the (1)nature/severity of the violation; (2) actions taken by the administrator to correct violations; (3) prior violations; (4) the effect your violations had on facility residents; (5) financial benefits to the violating facility; and (6) whether this was an isolated, patterned, or widespread deficiency.

Conclusion

It is important to hire a competent health law attorney at the early stages of the investigation who is familiar with these types of cases to handle subsequent hearings. Although it’s not a guarantee, a highly-skilled attorney might be able to mitigate the seriousness of the offenses in the complaint resulting in the reduction or rescinding of fines and action against your license. You and your attorney should decide whether it is best for you to appear before an administrative law judge or negotiate a settlement with AHCA. To better weigh your options a licensed attorney may submit a motion for extension of time to respond to the Administrative Complaint so that you can negotiate a settlement or gather evidence do deny the allegations at the hearing. Alternatively, if you have already submitted your Election of Rights to AHCA, a health law attorney may be able to submit a Motion for Abeyance to continue the case while you explore available options with AHCA.

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It should be noted that I am not your lawyer (unless you have presently retained my services through a retainer agreement). This post is not intended as legal advice, it is purely educational and informational, and no attorney-client relationship shall result after reading it. Please consult your own attorney for legal advice. If you do not have one and would like to retain my legal services please contact me using the contact information listed above.

All of the information and references made to laws, rules, regulations, and advisory opinions were accurate based on the law as it existed at this time, but laws are constantly evolving. Please contact me to be sure that the law which will govern your business is current. Thank you.

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