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Legislative Measures Break Down Barriers to Remote Health Care

Recently passed and proposed legislation across the country is bolstering telehealth expansion by redefining telehealth benefit specifications, enabling coverage across state lines and eliminating patient care obstacles for medical professionals.

doctor at a laptop with a cellphone.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a critical need for telehealth expansion by unveiling significant gaps in health-care access. Since the onset of the pandemic, telemedicine has continued to be a prevalent choice for those in rural areas and underserved communities that rely on virtual doctor visits for health care and mental health concerns.

State lawmakers have taken notice and are continuing to push for legislation that increases access to telehealth in communities where the availability of specialized medical care may be limited.

As Telehealth Awareness Week approaches in September, the urgency to provide comprehensive care to all citizens, regardless of their location or circumstances, is still a hot topic — even post-COVID.

Just last week, U.S. senators Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., introduced the Strengthening Telehealth and Education for Rural Communities Act to increase rural access to telehealth and education services. The proposed bill would reauthorize the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program to provide funding to tribal and rural communities in Wyoming for telehealth and learning projects. The legislation would also serve as a dual resource to both help increase telemedicine access and also close the digital divide by ensuring that health care and education are accessible by Internet.

“People living in rural Wyoming deserve the same access to health care and education that folks in urban areas have, and that can help be achieved through the utilization of telecommunications technology,” Lummis said in a statement. “Reauthorizing the Distance Learning Telemedicine Program will allow for rural areas in Wyoming, including tribes, to continue having access to this important funding.”

Several other pieces of legislation have been introduced over the past few months to expand telehealth and redefine rules associated with this type of care. Back in February, representatives Suzan DelBene, D-Wash.; Tim Walberg, R-Mich.; Angie Craig, D-Minn.; Ron Estes, R-Kan.; Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J.; and Rick Allen, R-Ga., introduced the Telehealth Benefit Expansion for Workers Act of 2023 that would allow employers to offer workers stand-alone telehealth benefits, similar to dental and vision plans, in addition to their traditional health-care plans.

“As businesses return to more in-person work, we should not turn our backs on successful telehealth programs that benefited workers in Washington state and across the country,” DelBene said in a media statement earlier this year. “Everyone — regardless of where they live — should be able to access quality care when and where they need it. The Telehealth Benefit Expansion for Workers Act is an important step toward modernizing our health-care system to ensure patients can connect with their health-care providers from the comfort of their homes on their schedule.”

In May, several lawmakers from the Midwest to the mid-Atlantic region joined U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, R-Kan., in proposing the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act. If passed, the legislation would allow rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers to provide telehealth services and expand coverage of audio-only services for certain conditions. The bill also refines Medicare coverage rules regarding telehealth services by removing geographic restrictions on originating sites to allow for patient treatment in homes.

Last month, Missouri passed two bills to provide a more seamless process for mental health professionals to provide services digitally. Senate Bill 157 and Senate Bill 70 were signed into law in early July by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, enabling licensed counselors to practice via telehealth across state lines.

Further east, Maine passed two bills in June that focus on enabling those with speech or language challenges to streamline access to telemedicine. Senate Bill 717 opens the door for the use of telehealth technology to facilitate audiology and speech-language pathology services across state lines.

In a significant move toward enhancing health-care services for children and adolescents in Maine, House Bill 231 was also passed in June, which mandated the Maine Department of Health and Human Services establish a child psychiatry telehealth consultation service.
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.