A Quickly Evolving Landscape

There are times that the system must undergo a profound shock to pave the way for innovation. In the case of remote therapy, coronavirus may have just done that. While the gradual shift from face-to-face therapy to online therapy was already gaining momentum, before COVID-19, the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic have taken the therapy world by storm and have changed things practically overnight.

As quarantines and lockdowns continue across the country, even those therapists who have been opposed to remote therapy are suddenly embracing teletherapy out of sheer necessity. While it is highly unlikely that face-to-face therapy and counseling services will ever wholly vanish (they are still needed for some high-risk patient populations), for the majority of those requiring therapy, things may never again be the same.

Recently, the Lancet published a rapid review of the psychological effects of quarantine, which range from boredom and frustration to anxiety and even PTSD. The evidence is clear: Social distancing, while necessary, can be severely detrimental to mental health. These conditions naturally translate to a higher demand for therapy. And since that’s not an option in many places right now, there’s no choice but remote therapy.

Effectiveness and Benefits of Teletherapy

While it may not seem that way, teletherapy itself is nothing new. Already research in the late ’80s and early ‘90s demonstrated the efficacy of teletherapy, and it has gradually become more mainstream since then. There is strong evidence that remote therapy can work well for many conditions and various age groups.

What’s more, for specific populations, teletherapy is the delivery of choice, for instance, patients in rural communities or those with certain disabilities.

In the mental health arena, online mindfulness interventions are on the rise. Research has shown that mindfulness-based interventions generally have a small but significant beneficial impact on depression. Another study found remote therapy to be as effective if not more effective than face-to-face therapy for treating depression.

And the benefits of remote therapy are substantial. It has been shown to be more affordable, more convenient, and there are clients who consider it to be more confidential than face-to-face therapy. What’s more, online therapy provides a vastly more excellent selection of therapists to work with, due to the elimination of geographical constraints.

Boosts from the Government and Insurance Industry

The Trump Administration made a fateful decision on March 17, 2020, which may have supercharged the migration to remote therapy. On that day, it was decided to expand Medicare telehealth coverage broadly. This was done in the hopes of weakening the anticipated spike in Coronavirus cases and deaths, by extending services without risking more people on the streets and in doctors’ offices.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services made a move to expand the telehealth benefit on a temporary and emergency basis under waiver authority and the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act.

This expansion covers care and counseling that is provided by a broad range of professionals offering telehealth to patients, from doctors and nurse practitioners to clinical psychologists and licensed clinical social workers.

This watershed event in the history of teletherapy was met with Dr. Ken Duckworth’s, (Medical Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)), assertion that last week was “the biggest week in telehealth policy in American history.”

“Prior to this waiver, Medicare could only pay for telehealth on a limited basis,” according to CMS, such as when people in a “designated rural area” had to travel to certain types of medical facilities for the virtual service.

Experts say that, with this policy change, telehealth (which is the umbrella under which teletherapy is included) shifted into overdrive after years of incremental progress. The government realized that, as the number of Americans infected with COVID-19 rose rapidly, they needed to act as it was a matter of life and death.

This monumental change on the national level has given states broad flexibility to cover telehealth through Medicare and reimburse health providers for telehealth services at the same level they would for face-to-face care.

What’s more, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would waive penalties for potential HIPAA violations during the Pandemic, effectively lowering the barriers to remote therapy.

With the government paving the way, it hasn’t taken insurance companies long to follow suit. Private insurance companies have already begun to expand their coverage of telemedicine and teletherapy as well.

What the long-term Medicare and private insurance coverage landscape for telehealth will look like in the post-Coronavirus world is anyone’s guess. But most medical and mental health experts agree that the dramatic shift in virtual care that is underway is probably here to stay, and perhaps will continue to increase well into the future.

Help Your Students Cope with the Crisis

The response to the COVID-19 Pandemic is unprecedented. Because of our unique role in children’s K-12 education, we feel a responsibility to do what we can to assist schools, therapists, and students with this transition to online learning and seclusion. To ensure that our students remain engaged and supported, our therapists are providing complimentary “Support Sessions” to the country’s youth. We are also assisting schools with online therapist training for teletherapy.