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Illinois Legislation Extends Telehealth Benefits Past Pandemic

Patients who need a doctor, nurse practitioner, counselor or other health professional will continue to benefit from video or telephone visits after the COVID-19 pandemic, central Illinois officials said Monday.

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(TNS) — Patients who need a doctor, nurse practitioner, counselor or other health professional will continue to benefit from video or telephone visits after the COVID-19 pandemic, central Illinois officials said Monday.

They commended the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. JB Pritzker for enacting a new state law that requires state-regulated health insurance plans to cover and reimburse for telehealth services at the same level as in-person care.

Reimbursement for telehealth services expanded temporarily during the pandemic, and many health care providers worried that funding would become less available in the future, according to Kenny Dunn, a licensed clinical professional counselor and manager of Springfield-based Memorial Counseling Associates.

"This is something we've wanted to do for some time," Dunn said. "I think this is here to stay."

Dunn said House Bill 3308, which Pritzker signed into law Thursday and took effect immediately, will help ensure that patients enjoy the expanded access to virtual mental-health visits that began in spring 2020 when an executive order from Pritzker mandated payment "parity" with virtual and in-person health care.

The bill extends the payment parity requirement indefinitely for mental health and substance use disorder services and through the end of 2027 for all other types of health care.

Memorial Behavioral Health, of which Memorial Counseling Associates is a part, has seen patients almost exclusively on a remote basis for the past year and a half to avoid transmission of COVID-19, Dunn said.

Mental health professionals wanted to provide more remote services for years, he said. The pandemic presented that opportunity.

"We're reaching a lot more people," Dunn said.

Patients receiving counseling have appreciated the convenience, and some have felt even more relaxed interacting with a therapist on a video or phone link from home or during a lunch break or right after they get off work, he said.

National statistics indicate telehealth services can be as effective as in-personal care for mental-health conditions, Dunn said.

HB 3308, passed by the Illinois House and Senate without any dissenting votes, makes Illinois one of the first states to enshrine telehealth payment parity in statute.

The bill, which also affects health plans covering state and local government workers and retirees, does not govern Medicaid, Medicare or self-insured private plans.

But Medicaid in Illinois continues to pay the same rates for telehealth as for in-person care, and it's the same for Medicare as a result of federal emergency policies first adopted under former President Donald Trump.

Even though they aren't required, most self-insured plans, which cover about half of all Illinoisans, probably will voluntarily continue to cover telehealth with the same rates as in-person care, as the plans have done throughout the pandemic, because of the popularity of telehealth, Dunn said.

Pritzker said at the bill-signing ceremony for HB 3308 at a Chicago hospital: "The fight against COVID has accelerated the value of remote services, be it work or school or health across the nation. And while many in-person services are crucial, these last 17 months have reaffirmed what a vital lifeline the internet can be in so many aspects of our lives, especially in a time of crisis."

The pandemic also has put a spotlight on longstanding health care disparities and access gaps for Illinoisans in rural and urban areas, the governor said. Many of the disparities were related to transportation and work schedules, health experts said.

Before the pandemic, telehealth services were rarely available because health insurance either didn't pay for them at all or paid at reduced reimbursement rates, experts said.

HB 3308 was sponsored by state Sen. Napoleon Harris, D- Harvey, and Rep. Thaddeus Jones, D- Calumet City. It was supported by a diverse group of Illinois health care providers known as The Coalition to Protect Telehealth.

The coalition said telehealth services during the pandemic have led to fewer missed appointments, improvements in managing patients' chronic health issues and better adherence to doctors' instructions, according to the coalition.

Telehealth hasn't let to unnecessary or duplicative care during the pandemic, the coalition said.

The bill bars insurers from requiring patients to prove a hardship to receive telehealth services. It also prohibits patients from being required to use telehealth services.

The legislation will lead to more innovative ways of using telehealth services, according to Katie Mueller, network director of the Illinois Telehealth Network. The network promotes telehealth services in central and southern Illinois and is operated by Hospital Sisters Health System with a federal grant.

"It is expanding access," Mueller said.

With the assurance of a steady stream of reimbursements, health care provider groups will be more likely to offer telehealth services for traditional physician visits, urgent care visits and specialty appointments, she said.

Telehealth is particularly well-suited to mental health care because practitioners often don't need to lay hands on a patient, and the care can be even more confidential, Dunn said.

Memorial Health System continues to operate a free emotional-support hotline at (217) 588-5509, and the system has received more and more requests for mental health services related to depression and other issues during the pandemic, Dunn said.

Telehealth services will be key to helping meet that growing demand for care, he said.

For people with HIV or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, telehealth can help patients deal with an additional challenge — stigma — according to Timothy Jackson, director of government affairs for the AIDS Foundation Chicago.

The bill, he said, "is really kind of a game-changer for people living in Illinois.

"Telehealth is not replacing in-person care," he said. "It's just providing additional options."

© 2021 The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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