Telemedicine Bill Flies through Idaho Legislature

The purpose of the bill is to facilitate the increasing use of telehealth services, which include prescriptions, consultations and other health care practices that are provided from a long distance.

by William L. Spence, Lewiston Tribune / March 10, 2015

(Tribune News Service) --  Two lines of anti-abortion language tucked into a larger telemedicine bill have drawn objections from a handful of Idaho House and Senate Democrats.

What makes that unusual is that the legislation was sponsored by House Minority Leader John Rusche of Lewiston, and it has flown through the Legislature with almost no negative testimony.

The measure, known as the Idaho Telehealth Access Act, passed the House on a 66-3 vote last week. It earned a favorable recommendation Monday from the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

The purpose of the bill is to facilitate the increasing use of telehealth services, which include prescriptions, diagnoses, consultations and other health care practices that are provided from a long distance, via computer or telecommunications technology.

However, the legislation also includes two lines that say "no drug may be prescribed through telehealth services for the purpose of causing an abortion."

Rusche said he added the language to avoid a fight.

"I wanted the discussion to be about telehealth, not about abortion," he said. "A similar bill in Washington went down because the discussion focused on abortion."

All of the testimony Monday was in support of the bill, highlighting the value of telemedicine in lowering health care costs, improving the quality of care and expanding access, particularly in rural areas.

The testimony was in stark contrast to a Feb. 24 House hearing on a chemical abortion bill, which attracted a roomful of opponents. That legislation doesn't specifically prohibit the use of telehealth services for abortions, but does require an in-person physical exam before abortion drugs like RU-486 can be prescribed.

Hannah Brass Greer, legislative affairs director for Planned Parenthood in Idaho, spoke against the chemical abortion bill. She also submitted written testimony opposing the anti-abortion language in Rusche's telehealth bill, but she couldn't attend the hearing to testify in person.

"We actually like (Rusche's bill), aside from that language," she said in a phone interview Monday evening. "It's the kind of legislation that will expand access to health care in Idaho."

Sen. Maryanne Jordan of Boise, the Legislature's newest Democrat, provided the only opposing vote at Monday's Senate committee hearing.

"I think this technology is amazing ... but I am concerned (about the anti-abortion language)," she said. "It places an undue burden on women in rural areas."

Jordan was sworn in Monday; she's taking the seat previously held by Elliot Werk, who resigned to join the Idaho State Tax Commission.

Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, also spoke against Rusche's bill during last week's House floor debate, citing the effect the abortion prohibition may have on women in rural communities. Two other Democrats joined her in casting protest votes.

Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, publicly complimented Rusche for his work on the telehealth bill, as well as a multistate medical licensing bill, which also earned a favorable recommendation Monday from the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

"He (Rusche) continually brings forward good bills to improve health care in Idaho," Hagedorn said. "I appreciate his efforts. It's very obvious that good ideas aren't partisan."

The telehealth bill now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

©2015 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC