Telemedicine gains support

Benjamin Farniok

Medical insurers in Minnesota may soon be required to cover expenses incurred by patient care given over the phone or by virtual doctor visits.
A bill making its way through the Legislature, called the Minnesota Telemedicine Act, would require insurance companies to treat distance medical consultation and treatment as if a patient was simply going to a doctor’s office.
Some advocates call this type of care the future of medical treatment, and say it could help rural and underserved communities.
“[Telemedicine is] not being utilized to the full extent, so this legislation hopes to do that,” said Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, co-author of the bill.
If it passes, Minnesota will join 22 other states that have similar telemedicine laws in place.
The measure has already passed through several committees in the Legislature. It had a hearing at the Senate Health and Human Services Budget Division committee meeting Thursday and was recommended to pass. It could potentially be included in an omnibus bill.
Mario Gutierrez, executive director for the Center for Connected Health Policy, said telemedicine provides easier access to medical care and is more efficient andcost-effective.
Last year, Mercy Hospital St. Louis began constructing the nation’s first facility dedicated to telemedicine, called the Virtual Care Center. The facility uses advanced technology, and estimates it will oversee more than 3 million visits in the first five years. 
The University of Minnesota hosts several programs that use telemedicine, including the Institute of Health Informatics.
Wendy Burt, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Hospital Association, which strongly advocated for the bill this session, said telemedicine would reduce wait times by
allowing medical checkups to be done at home.
“Telemedicine will allow people to get care where they live. It makes it more convenient, and it will extend the range of accessibility to specialty services, physicians and providers,” Burt said.
Clausen said telemedicine would support more patients in greater Minnesota. He said his work assessing the availability of health care in rural areas of the state, as well as the distribution of medical professionals, prompted him to draft the legislation.
The bill could require more than $900,000 in state funding over the next two years, depending on how officials negotiate insurance costs and investigate illegal practice or inappropriate billing. According to the Minnesota Advantage Health Plan, there was about $45,000 in insurance claims for telemedicine services last year. 
Mary DeVany, the director of the Great Plains Telehealth Resource and Assistance Center, said the bill would also make insurance coverage more uniform.
“What the [the bill] is trying to establish [is] some continuity so that providers have an understanding, ‘If I’m providing this service, I am going to get paid,’” she said.
DeVany said some negative impacts of telemedicine could lead to over-prescription of medication and also a rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Another bill introduced this session would join Minnesota with a few surrounding states, including South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, and make it easier to practice telemedicine across state lines by simplifying the licensure process.
Gutierrez said the Minnesota Telemedicine Act differs from other states because it doesn’t allow insurance providers to not reimburse medical care providers for telemedicine services. 
“Basically it says you pay parity for telehealth as in-person [doctor visits],” Gutierrez said.