United States: Telemedicine Prescribing And Controlled Substances Laws

Editor's Note: This article is the first of a series addressing telemedicine prescribing and controlled substances, designed to give some much needed practical guidance and orientation to established health care providers, hospitals, and entrepreneurs alike.

As providers become more comfortable with delivering care via telemedicine, telehealth, and digital health technologies, some are exploring services beyond low acuity consults. One area of opportunity – and notable confusion – is prescribing controlled substances via telemedicine. This particularly affects specialties that couple chronic disease management with pharmacotherapy. For example, adolescent and adult telepsychiatry, substance abuse/recovery, endocrinology, hormone replacement therapy, and medical weight loss.

Providers are increasingly inquiring about telemedicine prescribing laws and rules, as well as strategies and approaches for business models and service lines that not only satisfy patient needs, but comply with the layers of intersecting state and federal laws on telemedicine, medical practice, fraud and abuse, and controlled substances. Indeed, telemedicine prescribing of controlled substances was one of the "Telehealth Top 10" for 2015, and has only continued to generate interest since that time.

What is the Federal Ryan Haight Act?

The Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act was designed to combat the rogue internet pharmacies that proliferated in the late 1990s, selling controlled substances online. The Act took effect April 13, 2009 and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) issued regulations effective that same date. The Act essentially imposed a federal prohibition on form-only online prescribing for controlled substances. Although the Act was intended to target "rogue" internet pharmacies, legitimate healthcare providers who prescribe controlled substances via telemedicine must carefully review the regulations to ensure compliance.

What Does the Ryan Haight Act Mean for Healthcare Professionals?

Under the Ryan Haight Act, no controlled substance may be delivered, distributed, or dispensed by means of the internet (which, for all practical purposes, includes telemedicine technologies) without a valid prescription. A valid prescription is one that is issued for a legitimate medical purpose in the usual course of professional practice by: 1) a practitioner who has conducted at least one in-person medical evaluation of the patient; or 2) a covering practitioner. An "in-person medical evaluation" means a medical evaluation that is conducted with the patient in the physical presence of the prescribing practitioner, without regard to whether portions of the evaluation are conducted by other health professionals.

While the DEA has historically viewed the lack of an in-person medical evaluation as a red flag of potential drug diversion, the Ryan Haight Act makes it unambiguous that it is a per se violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act for a practitioner to issue a prescription for a controlled substance by means of the Internet without having conducted at least one in-person medical evaluation, except in certain specified circumstances. Once the prescribing practitioner has conducted an in-person medical evaluation, the Ryan Haight Act does not set an expiration period or a mandatory requirement of subsequent annual re-examinations (although specific controlled substances, such as suboxone, may have their own rules). Of course, this does not mean that conducting one in-person medical evaluation is sufficient in every clinical situation. Even where the practitioner has conducted an in-person exam, a prescription for a controlled substance must still be issued for a legitimate medical purpose by a practitioner acting in the usual course of his or her professional practice.

Can a Health Care Provider Prescribe Controlled Substances via Telemedicine?

The Ryan Haight Act does not prohibit the use of telemedicine to prescribe controlled substances, and a provider may do so if federal and state requirements are met. However, the challenge for many providers is understanding these laws and applying them to the processes of their specific service line or business. There are solutions and approaches that can work for primary care practices, hospitals, telepsychiatry groups, and the like. Moreover, the Ryan Haight Act has seven exceptions to the in-person medical evaluation requirement for when a prescriber is engaged in the practice of telemedicine. For DEA purposes, keep in mind that "practice of telemedicine" is a defined term of art, and the exceptions are technical and specific. Providers should not assume their approach to telemedicine or virtual care does, in fact, meet a "practice of telemedicine" exception under the Ryan Haight Act. The next articles will discuss the practice of telemedicine exceptions under the Ryan Haight Act, as well as state laws.

What's Next for the Ryan Haight Act?

In 2015, the American Telemedicine Association sent a letter to the DEA, advocating for provider-friendly changes to federal controlled substance prescribing rules. Disclosure: attorneys in Foley's telemedicine practice were contributing authors to the letter. The letter urged DEA to open a special registration process allowing psychiatrists and physicians to prescribe controlled substances via telemedicine without the need for an in-person exam. The ATA letter noted that "the interpretation of the [Ryan Haight] Act's general prohibition of prescribing controlled substances by means of the internet has become overly restrictive."

In 2016, DEA announced plans to issue a new rule to activate the special registration process allowing physicians to use telemedicine to prescribe controlled substances without an in-person exam. The most recent notice of rulemaking stated the proposed rule was expected to be published in January 2017. As of this article, the proposed rule has not yet been released, but is anticipated to be published this year.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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