Our Profession’s Biggest Open Secret

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What’s the biggest open secret in our field? Each of us might have slightly different answers. Here’s mine: the reason so many students are blocked from receiving needed services is because their home states have not updated their Medicaid telepractice policies.

Children who qualify for Medicaid coverage, by definition, are from low-income families. My experience is that these children are disproportionately affected by the shortage of SLPs and could therefore benefit a great deal from access to treatments delivered via telepractice.

In addition, many schools, when faced with tight budgets, simply do not have the money to hire additional SLPs–telepractice or not–without Medicaid funds.

This places an unfair burden on the rural and urban schools that need telepractice the most. They struggle more than their affluent peers to find qualified SLPs. One reason is that those wealthier districts can pay substantially more for treatment delivered via telepractice if state Medicaid policies haven’t been updated to reimburse for online services.

This isn’t the most surprising part of the secret, however. That honor goes to how easily states can make the change. Consider this:

  • The federal government, which partners with each state on its Medicaid plan, has already approved billing for telepractice. That’s right, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services already has an approved billing treatment for treatment delivered via telepractice.
  • All reimbursements for telepractice are paid for entirely by the federal government. This means that states don’t pay for additional reimbursements out of pocket. Let me repeat that one more time: allowing reimbursement for telepractice increases access to services without requiring additional funds from your state’s Medicaid program.
  • For all states that PresenceLearning has researched—aside from Indiana—allowing reimbursement for telepractice is as simple as publishing a clarifying policy memo. The memo should say that online services can be billed with the same codes as traditional sessions as long as a “GT” telepractice modifier is included for tracking purposes.

It is important to keep in mind that telepractice is just a different delivery method for services already approved by CMS and reimbursed by Medicaid in schools.  SLPs provide online services using the same approaches and materials they would use if they were physically at the school site. 

What can you do to help students get the treatment they need by motivating your state to write that memo?

  • Speak to stakeholders to build a consensus. Stakeholders include: ASHA, state licensing boards, special education directors, state departments of special education and directors of child health programs for your schools.
  • Consult state-level billing agents on the best way to document services to ensure program integrity.
  • Network with colleagues using telepractice to find out which states currently approve Medicaid funding for telepractice.

There are eight states that reimburse for telepractice services. They include: Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon and Virginia. In addition, reimbursement for telepractice services are pending in California and Michigan.[Note from ASHA editors: This list was published in July 2013, so it may have changed. Our December issue focused on telepractice and has a slightly different list of states offering reimbursement.] 

Contact state speech and hearing associations or state-level Medicaid directors to find out how you can assist in getting Medicaid reimbursement for telepractice services. Let’s work together to ensure students who need our services receive them and schools receive the appropriate funding from Medicaid.

Melissa Jakubowitz M.A. CCC-SLP, vice president of clinical services at PresenceLearning, is an SLP with more than 20 years of clinical and managerial experience, Melissa is a Board Recognized Specialist in Child Language. She is a past-president of the California Speech-Language-Hearing Association and is also active in ASHA, serving as a Legislative Counselor for 12 years. Melissa began her career working in the public schools and can be reached at melissa@presencelearning.com

Beyond Skype for Online Therapy: Protecting Student Privacy

Privacy

 

The trend for kids online is sharing more, not less. Today’s kids consciously and unconsciously share so many aspects of their life using Facebook, Skype or even newer tech tools like Snapchat. But, as educators, we hold ourselves to a much higher legal and professional standard for protecting the information of these very same students. We’ve all heard about the laws—FERPA, HIPAA, COPPA— that set the standards for privacy of student records and personally identifiable information, but what do the laws mean in the context of delivering speech-language therapy online?

HIPAA: Protecting Individually Identifiable Health Information

Created by the Department of Health and Human Services in 1996, The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a federal law that protects patient medical records. HIPAA specifically protects “individually identifiable health information,” which includes:

  • the individual’s name, address, birth date and Social Security number.
  • the individual’s past, present or future physical or mental health or condition.
  • the provision of health care to the individual.
  • the past, present or future payment for the provision of health care to the individual.

HIPAA gives patients a variety of rights regarding individually identifiable health information. With consent, HIPAA permits the disclosure of health information needed for patient care, such as speech therapy.

FERPA: Protecting Education Records

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects student education records. FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records until they turn 18 or transfer to a school higher than the high school level, thus making them “eligible students.” The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education. Under FERPA, parents or eligible students have the right to:

  • Inspect and review the student’s education records.
  • Request a school to correct records they believe to be inaccurate or misleading.
  • Prevent a school from releasing information from the student’s education record without written permission (with some exceptions).

COPPA: Protecting Children’s Personal Information

The Federal Trade Commission instituted COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) in April, 2000 to protect children’s personal information on websites and applications that target children under the age of 13. Under the legislation, websites and apps that collect this information must notify parents directly and get their approval prior to the collection, use or disclosure of a child’s personal information. The FTC describes personal information as:

  • A child’s name, contact information (address, phone number or email address.
  • A child’s physical whereabouts.
  • Photos, videos and audio recordings of the child.
  • A child’s “persistent identifiers,” like IP addresses, that can be used to track a child’s activities over time and across different websites and online services.

Recommendations for Online Therapy

Clinicians and educators often focus on the capabilities of individual pieces of technology, and, indeed, a secure therapy platform is highly recommended both to ensure the privacy of sessions as well as student data. However, it is the information, and the sharing of that information by the adults responsible for the care of each child, that these laws focus on. So educators need to focus on a systems approach that considers the end-to-end process of handling and securing student data.

While clinicians are trained in student identity protection, non-disclosure methods and the maintenance of student record confidentiality, it is ultimately the school’s responsibility to ensure agreements they have in place with online therapy service providers support them in protecting student privacy. So what are the practical considerations in this end-to-end approach to protecting the privacy of students receiving online therapy?

  1. Ask what type of security is in place. Solutions with bank-level security offer the strongest protection of data. This includes 256-bit encryption using TLS 1.0, restricted physical access to the servers on which data is stored, and 24/7 on-site security personnel.
  2. Use a secure platform for therapy. Secure platforms use an invite-only, encrypted, secure connection. In this model, only the online clinician and the student assigned to that particular appointment time are permitted to enter the password-protected “therapy room.” Parents may also view a session with a prior written request.
  3. Use a secure server to store data. Make sure all student files containing individually identifiable health information and education records are stored on a secure server using industry-leading security.
  4. Restrict access. Only online clinicians, authorized school administrators and parents should have access to this password-protected information, thus further protecting student privacy.

This “big picture” thinking will let educators take advantage of new online delivery models for therapy services AND stay compliant with privacy laws. And leave Snapchat to the students.

Melissa Jakubowitz, MA, CCC-SLP, is the Vice President of SLP Clinical Services at PresenceLearning. She is a Board Recognized Specialist in Child Language with more than with more than 20 years of clinical and managerial experience. She is the past-president of the California Speech-Language-Hearing Association and is active in ASHA, serving as a Legislative Counselor for 12 years.