Post-Pandemic Advice for Therapy Clinics: Why HIPAA Compliance is Still Paramount

Since we first became aware of the potential impact of Covid-19 on American businesses, those of us in the Florida therapy industry have been scrambling to keep up with all the changes and updates. Though none of us knows what the “new normal” will look like as of the date of this post, we will aim to continue providing you with the most accurate and up-to-date information we have. 

In an effort to be proactive versus reactive, we have created this blog series to cover as many areas as we think you should consider, the first of which is the temporary relaxation of HIPAA violation fees and penalties. The rumors around these changes and what will happen going forward has caused confusion amongst many therapy clinic owners. The following is our opinion for your consideration.

If your therapy clinic has conducted treatments via telehealth during this unprecedented period of time, it’s likely that compliance was not the first thing on your mind. Understandably, you likely first needed to make sure your business survived the pandemic and that your patients could get the quality of services they needed.

Even if you have been paying attention to compliance, it may have felt unclear how best to maintain it with your therapists and admin staff working from home. The truth is that there have been some areas that have had some leniency when it comes to being HIPAA compliant, due to the need for clinics to make swift changes in the area of telehealth and the general strain on the healthcare industry. Insurance companies and non-commercial payers lifted previously strict requirements for teleconferencing software retroactive to the arrival of the Covid-19 threat in the U.S., even going so far as to allow audio-only treatments.

However, we anticipate that this lenience will not remain once the country has begun operating semi-normally again. HIPAA regulations are still in place and paramount to your clinic’s existence, and your patients’ privacy. It’s perhaps more important than ever to consider these requirements first and foremost as you make decisions about your clinic going forward.

Transitioning Your Therapy Clinic Out of Crisis Mode

In our last blog post, we provided you with advice for what to do during the crisis period, but it’s just as critical to consider what to do as we all transition out of this unusual mode of operations.

Whether your clinic will be opening its doors and phasing back into in-person treatments or maintaining virtual therapy sessions, here are some general nuggets of advice:

  • Clarify any new policies with patients right away.
    • Will you be allowing only a certain number of people in your waiting room at any given moment?
    • Ensure that you and/or your therapists have contacted each patient to let them know about any changes that affect them specifically. Relationships with your patients continue to be everything!
  • Decide how to address patients’ concerns if they do not feel comfortable returning to in-person therapy.
    • This means you’ll want to decide on medium-term plans for maintaining virtual services (over the next 3 to 6 months). It may be necessary to reevaluate, given the uncertain nature of things right now.
    • Complete benefits checks, even if they were done just before the pandemic. You’ll want to verify each patient’s insurance coverage and how that payer’s policies have changed prior to continuing to bill for treatments. *Be aware that this process may take longer than usual, given volume of phone calls and staff shortages at insurance companies.* 

HIPAA Compliance is Still Crucial for Therapists and Clinics

If part of your plan includes continuing with teletherapy sessions even after businesses open in your area, which we highly recommend, here are a few things to consider.

On an administrative level, the most important factor in maintaining compliance at this time is to use a HIPAA-compliant video conferencing option. If your therapists have been using software of their choice (such as Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime) up until this point, you’ll want to streamline sessions to just one or two platforms with which your business has a signed Business Associate Agreement (BAA). Note that many companies will only allow for this kind of business-to-business contract if you are a paying customer using a particular tier of services, meaning you cannot be using the free version of their product. This may have been overlooked due to the criticality of getting your patients treated and the length of time it may have taken to get the BAA signed by your telehealth vendors, but the window of leniency is expected to be rapidly closing.

In order to offset the potential expense necessary to acquire a BAA, you will want to do everything you can to make sure that therapists are following HIPAA protocol to a T, so that you and your employees can continue to get paid.

To ensure that treatment is only being performed via these approved platforms, it’s wise to implement policies such as requiring therapists to set up sessions in advance using meeting scheduling features. Even if your clinic has not been called out thus far for software choice, know that the proverbial dust is beginning to settle in many ways. Insurance companies are looking to cut costs just as you are, and if they determine that treatment was not provided using approved tools, they will have every right to begin denying claims. Not to mention the greater consequences of any potential HIPAA violations.

Be Aware of Changes in Pay Rates for Telehealth

Right now, telehealth treatments are being paid at the same rate as in-person sessions, for the most part. We do not expect or assume this payment option for all specialties will continue. It may, and hopefully will, but you need to be aware of those changes as soon as anything happens. The team at EEP is very diligent in staying current on all rules, but your team needs to be diligent as well.

You’ll want to consider what mix of in-person and telehealth services you can manage by calculating minimum and maximum pay rates. Predicting each possible scenario will leave you with the power to make quick decisions to keep your revenue afloat no matter what challenges arise.

We recommend staying on top of further billing-related updates that are pertinent to Florida therapists. Our partner billing agency, Edwards Electronic Processing (EEP), provides a free video series for the Florida therapy community on Facebook and YouTube.

Keep Better Records with an EMR

One major factor of HIPAA compliance, pandemic or not, is how well you are keeping records for your clinic. Now that much of your business may be virtual, having a documentation system that is accessible from any device at any time is crucial. 

There’s no better time than now, when every decision is critical to your business’s future, to maximize your therapy clinic’s efficiency. Schedule a demo of our web-based EMR today.

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