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Senate Bill Expands Rural Access to Telehealth in Iowa

The Iowa Senate approved a bill to expand rural access using telemedicine that requires equal insurance coverage as in-person services.

Iowa legislators support telehealth use for improving rural patient access

Source: Thinkstock

By Jessica Kent

- A bill approved by the Iowa Senate requires health insurers to cover both telehealth and in-person services equally and could expand rural access to telemedicine, particularly in specialty areas such as psychiatry.

“Telehealth services are growing in this state, especially in rural areas like mine,” said Senator Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, the bill’s floor manager. “This bill is necessary to make sure that insurance covers these services just as if they were delivered in person.”

The legislation states that telehealth services, or services delivered through the use of interactive audio, video, or other electronic media, must be in accordance with generally accepted healthcare practices and standards.

If approved, the bill will apply to third-party payment provider policies, contracts, or plans issued or renewed on or before July 1, 2018.

Representative Peter Cownie, R-Des Moines, Chairman of the House Commerce Committee, first proposed the legislation after visiting a hospital and observing providers and patients use an iPad to virtually connect with medical professionals at a different organization.

Although patients in bigger cities like Des Moines have access to numerous providers and specialists, Cownie explained that this is not always the case.

“There are a lot of small towns and rural areas where not every hospital has every doctor you might need,” Cownie said.

With access to telehealth, more patients can access treatment locally, which will help them avoid traveling or taking time off from work.

“This is the way it’s going to be done in the future,” said Amy Campbell, a lobbyist for groups supporting the legislation, including the Iowa Primary Care Association. 

For patients seeking mental healthcare, the bill is especially promising. Campbell noted that some Iowa patients are virtually consulting with psychiatrists as far as Hawaii.

Other patients receive treatment at community clinics, but many clinic members who provide mental health services split their time between locations and can’t be in all places every day.

Telehealth allows clinic members to hold sessions with patients remotely, reduces travel burdens, and ensures that patients receive the care they need.

“This is a direct way to get mental health services,” Cownie said. “I haven’t heard a better answer.”

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate, with a vote of 49-0, and is now awaiting approval from Governor Kim Reynolds.

Earlier this month, Memphis-based University Clinical Health installed audio-visual digital health technology in two clinics serving two rural counties. Executives say the telemedicine platform will enable rural and remote residents to meet virtually with UCH specialists.

Likewise, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced plans to address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among rural veterans via nationwide telehealth program will connect 12 community-based outpatient clinics across the nation with veterans in need of treatment. Care managers will first contact veterans by phone, then set up therapy sessions with available psychologists and psychiatrists through an interactive video platform.

A trial to be conducted by University of Alabama-Birmingham’s Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine seeks to prove telemedicine as an effective platform for treating hard-to-reach patients in rural areas, in this case pregnant women battling opioid addiction.

“The opioid epidemic disproportionally affects rural women in Alabama,” the organization stated, “and our goal with this research will be to measure the effectiveness of telemedicine in this population, specifically as it relates to improving birth outcomes for mothers and babies. We’re working to reduce health disparities that impact mothers across our state and provide quality care that can help these women lead healthy pregnancies and lives.”

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