New federal legislation establishes a national definition of telehealth and clarifies the scope of which electronic methods can be used to safely deliver health-care services.

The Telehealth Modernization Act of 2013 provides principles to guide states that are considering their own telehealth policies. Introduced in December and sponsored by Reps. Doris Matsui, D-Calif.; and Bill Johnson, R-Ohio; the legislation aims to standardize what telehealth is and promote its use by health-care professionals in the U.S.

In an interview with Government Technology, Johnson explained that the bill – H.R. 3750 – isn’t a mandate directed at states. Instead, it encourages them to look further into telehealth as a viable option for physicians and patients to maximize the quality of health care.

A number of states have statutorily defined telehealth over the last several years as technology advancements have enabled doctors and patients to meet virtually with confidence. But according to a joint statement issued by Matsui and Johnson, 50 sets of rules for what types of care can be provided can often lead to uncertainty for providers. The Telehealth Modernization Act should provide principles and guidance to help standardize terminology on a national scale.

“It’s not a regulatory burden like an EPA rule or Obamacare,” Johnson said of the bill. “It is meant to get the states to start thinking about setting standards for telehealth, so as technology innovations make it more available, that they’re all stalking the same code and shooting for the same standards.”

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But if the bill isn’t a mandate for change, what if a state’s definition of telehealth differs significantly from the federal one? Would states have to amend their own laws? Johnson admitted he didn’t look at everything on the books from all 50 states, but said he believes if a state is already engaged in enabling telehealth, then they’d likely want to look at their laws to see how they can be more facilitative.

Johnson added that his intent is not to tie any potential future government funding regarding telehealth to adherence to H.R. 3750. He said he’s not in favor of forcing states to comply with a national definition of the term and is more for letting the private market drive telehealth innovation and standards.

On the subject of insurance companies and how they’d interpret the Act, Johnson added that he’s not worried that the definition of activities that constitute a telehealth “visit” could be construed to include emails and phone calls. He doesn’t envision being at that level yet, and reiterated that the bill is simply a vehicle to define what telehealth is and provide a framework for states.

“I think the states and the private market are much closer to what the needs of their citizens are,” Johnson said. “They’ll come up with the right answers. The right answers rarely come from inside the Beltway here in D.C."

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.