On May 2, 2022, the Workers’ Compensation Board launched new guidelines that limit the use of telehealth to treat injured workers. Before the COVID pandemic, the Board did not permit the use of telehealth at all. In response to the pandemic it issued a general authorization for the telehealth largely without limitation, which the new guidelines now revise.
In general, the telehealth guidelines require that the initial visit, every third visit, and permanency evaluations be conducted in person, rather than remotely. While there is reason to believe that this may be sound practice for physical injuries, it is more difficult to understand the Board’s extension of its guidelines to mental health treatment.
There are few physicians who are available to provide mental health treatment within the workers’ comp system, and the use of telehealth greatly expanded the availability of services to workers in remote locations or who were unable to travel to a doctor’s office. The restrictions the new guidelines impose on telehealth will clearly reduce the availability of mental health services for injured workers – at a time when the need for those services is skyrocketing.
It is also clear that there is far less to be gained from an in-person mental health examination than an in-person physical examination. While there may be some loss of mental health treatment and diagnosis quality by video or telehealth visit as compared to in person, the difference is unlikely to be significant and does not outweigh the need to expand mental health services for workers who need them.
Even in the case of physical injuries, it would have been wiser for the Board to include a degree of flexibility in its guidelines to permit some examinations to be conducted by telehealth if the worker was unable to travel to the doctor’s office. Unfortunately, the Board chose a “one-size-fits-all” model for both physical and mental health treatment, without exceptions for either. As a result, having adapted to respond during the pandemic, health care providers and injured workers will be forced to adapt once again.