The practice of telehealth has increased in recent years as physicians and patients have become more comfortable meeting through video conferencing and other digital means. But as electronic health practices have grown, so have the legal and financial complexities that come with them.
Many of those issues have centered on properly reimbursing doctors who use telehealth and getting care providers and health insurance companies on the same page regarding when telehealth practice is appropriate. A number of bills have been introduced recently to address those issues and encourage adoption of telemedicine methods as a way to meet the rising demand for routine medical services.
Below is a rundown of five federal and state measures that experts believe could have a significant impact on telehealth use in the U.S. if they become law.
On the federal level, H.R. 3077, the TELE-MED Act of 2013, was introduced on Sept. 10, 2013. The legislation would enable certain Medicare providers licensed in a state to provide telemedicine services to Medicare beneficiaries in a different state. If the bill passes, it would help expand telemedicine opportunities for some people who live near state borders. Sponsored by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the bill currently sits in the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Health.
H.R. 3306, the Telehealth Enhancement Act of 2013, authorizes changes to federal law that make it easier for hospitals and patients to pay for and use telehealth services. Introduced on Oct. 22, 2013, the legislation is sponsored by Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., and like H.R. 3077, currently resides in the House Subcommittee on Health.
“The importance of these bill[s] is that they affect the Medicare program as far as licensing and reimbursement, which could have a trickledown effect to states,” said Mei Wa Kwong, senior policy associate for the Center for Connected Health Policy, in an email to Government Technology.
Kwong also indicated that Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., has circulated a draft of a bill that would require Medicaid programs to reimburse for telehealth services that are included under state plans. The bill has not been formally introduced yet.
State legislatures are circulating a number of different telehealth bills this year. Of note is House Bill 1158 in New Hampshire. The American Telemedicine Association described the legislation as something that will require managed care plans to offer financial incentives to beneficiaries who use less expensive services, such as telemedicine.
Introduced late last year by Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, the measure will be further studied by New Hampshire lawmakers before proceeding through the state’s legislative process.
California Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez is sponsoring AB 1771, a bill that would require health insurance companies to reimburse physicians for phone and electronic patient visits. If the measure becomes law, it could potentially benefit doctors in rural areas where the number of patients greatly outnumbers available physicians. AB 1771 is currently in the California Assembly Committee on Appropriations.
“When doctors are able to take the time for phone calls and emails from patients to answer their questions, it not only improves the patient experience, but it also reduces unneeded office visits,” Pérez said in a statement. “In medically underserved areas like the Coachella and Imperial valleys, AB 1771 will help increase access by improving the capacity of physicians to meet the demand for medical care.”
The California Medical Association backs the bill, but Kwong wasn’t convinced that AB 1771 or the New Hampshire measure would get enough support to move forward.
“The [California] bill might have a national impact,” Kwong said. “But I’m not sure what the chances are for either bill becoming law."
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.