Montana state senators this past week unanimously voted to pass a telehealth expansion bill out of committee.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Rhonda Knudsen, R-Culbertson, by request of the state auditor, would safeguard telehealth coverage after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My constituents care about this, and this is important to everyone in Montana,” said Knudsen during a House Human Services Committee hearing.
“I represent four mostly rural counties in the northeast corner [of the state] … and my 10,000 constituents really do live in the middle of nowhere,” said Knudsen. “And access to healthcare in the middle of nowhere is not easy.”
WHY IT MATTERS
The Montana bill would:
- Prohibit contract provisions that impose site restrictions on telehealth.
- Provide that a previously established patient-healthcare provider relationship is not necessary to receive telehealth services.
- Extend the coverage requirement to public employee benefit plans and student health plans.
“The purpose of this bill is to expand coverage of telehealth, to make sure that every type of payer will pay for telehealth as they are now under the public health emergency waiver,” said Jackie Jones, representing the state’s securities and exchange commission, during the hearing.
Nearly two dozen people offered testimony in favor of the bill at the hearing. Many of the proponents who spoke highlighted telehealth’s potential usefulness for rural people.
“During the COVID pandemic, we’ve seen an expansion of telemedicine used in Montana. The tools provided have proven useful, and often necessary, in rural communities, with our seniors, with those with mobility issues, with veterans [and] for increased access to mental health care professionals,” said Montana State Auditor Troy Downing.
“We can all see the benefits of expanding these services,” he added. Downing noted that the bill came from collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders, including payers. “Those 21 proponents outside represent all the stakeholders in this process, here to say what we’ve come up with works for them,” said Jones.
The bill also revises the definition of telehealth to expand beyond licensed physician-provided care and encompass treatment such as behavioral health. It allows for audio-only communications, while acknowledging that there may be limitations by provider type.
“What we’re trying to make sure is that the definition of telehealth is not restricted so that it doesn’t matter where the patient is and where the provider is,” said Jones.
THE LARGER TREND
As noted at the American Telemedicine Association EDGE policy conference last week. state legislators have introduced around 300 bills aimed at expanding access to telemedicine coverage.
However, there are some exceptions: New Hampshire lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would roll back telehealth coverage and exclude audio-only services from the definition of telemedicine.
ON THE RECORD
“COVID, despite its many, many negatives, if you want to see a little tiny silver lining in this, [it] has been [that] we were forced to use technologies in ways that we maybe thought we weren’t ready for, and it turns out that we were,” said Jones. “We were very ready to take care of patients via telehealth, and we’d like to continue that.”