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Telemedicine Abortion Debate Surfaces in West Virginia Senate

West Virginia is the latest state to see language in a proposed bill that would ban physicians from prescribing abortion-causing medication through a telemedicine platform. Similar efforts have failed this year in Idaho and Utah.

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- West Virginia has become the latest state to consider banning telemedicine abortions.

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Republican Senator Patricia Rucker introduced an amendment this week to House Bill 2509 that prohibits “the prescribing of a drug with the intent of causing an abortion; and allowing a physician to prescribe controlled substances on Schedule II of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act in certain circumstances.”

“I don’t believe that type of drug should be given without a one-on-one [in-person] encounter,” she reportedly said when introducing the amendment.

The bill, filed in February, seeks to amend prescription regulations in last year’s landmark telemedicine legislation. This new bill would allow behavioral healthcare providers to prescribe controlled substances to children and adults enrolled in primary or secondary education programs who are diagnosed with intellectual or developmental disabilities, neurological disease, ADD, autism or a traumatic brain injury.

Rucker’s amendment drew the ire of WV Free, an organization formed in 1989 to support reproductive rights and education.

“The majority of people in leadership in the House and Senate made it clear they wanted to focus on jobs, education and the economy, and they specifically did not want to get mired into the politics of divisive issues like abortions,” said Margaret Chapman Pomponio, the group’s executive director.

“As advocates in the women’s health community, we’re always looking for ways to expand access to reproductive healthcare,” she told the Gazette-Mail, adding that the state currently has only abortion provider, making telemedicine an important resource.

“[T]elemedicine is a wonderful new opportunity to bring care to rural communities and women around the state who can’t make it to Charleston for reproductive healthcare,” she said. Legislators supporting Rucker’s amendment “seem so driven to take options and even the possibility of options away from the women of West Virginia.”

Telemedicine abortions – in which a physician examines a patient in a separate clinic via video, then prescribes medication that causes an abortion, most often by directing a nurse in the clinic to procure the medication from a locked cabinet – have been hotly debated in several states recently.

Earlier this year, Utah’s Senate struck down language in a telemedicine bill that would have banned telemedicine abortions. State Sen. Ben Shiozawa, an ER doctor who moved to strike the language, said he didn’t want politics to get in the way of approving “vital” telemedicine regulations.

“What I want to talk about is doctors prescribing medicine and systems that will work for patients,” he said during this weeks’ hearing, as reported by the Deseret News. “Once again we have an instance of legislators trying to insert themselves between doctors and patients. I don’t like that when it affects me in the ER, and I’m sure the OB-GYNs don’t like it when it affects them and the other physicians don’t like that.”

And just a few weeks ago, Idaho’s Senate amended its telemedicine laws after settling a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood over that state’s ban on telemedicine abortions, passed in 2015. Legislators voted to remove the restrictive language after the judge presiding over the lawsuit said it “provide(s) few, if any, health benefits for women,” and that any benefits “are outweighed by the burden these laws impose on access to abortion.”

Some 19 states have passed legislation either banning telemedicine abortions or mandating that the medication be given by a physician in person, while some others have restricted how telemedicine can be used.

In Texas, the state Senate this week approved Senate Bill 1107, long-awaited legislation that removes several key restrictions on the use of telemedicine. That bill includes language banning physicians from using telemedicine to prescribe “an abortifacient or any other drug or device that terminates a pregnancy.” 

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