Telemedicine on phone There arecurrently 42 states, as well as Washington, D.C. that have someform of telehealth commercial payer law. (Photo:Shutterstock)

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States have made significant process in creating access totelehealth services, a new survey finds. The Foley and Lardner report reviews telehealthstatutes across all 50 states, with an eye on how state lawmakersare creating legislation that allow both access to, andreimbursement for, this growing area of health care technology.

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Related: 2019: The year of telehealth?

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The report notes that there are currently 42 states andWashington, D.C. that have some form of telehealth commercial payerlaw. The survey found that some states, such as Florida,Massachusetts, and Michigan, have payment laws but do not actuallyrequire plans to cover telehealth services. In eightstates—Alabama, Idaho, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, SouthCarolina, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—there are still notelehealth commercial payer laws.

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A roadblock to services is crumbling

The report compares the latest survey to one conducted in 2017and finds that progress has been made across many states. "At thetime of the [2017] survey, one of the biggest barriers to adoptionwas limited or unclear reimbursement for telemedicine and digitalhealth services," the company said in a statement. "Whilereimbursement remains a major concern in the industry, the progresson a state-by-state basis over the past two years has beenimpressive." The report points to recent laws passed in Georgia andCalifornia as "best-in-class" legislation in this area.

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Telehealth services, which for many years were often relegatedto rural health applications, have become muchmore common for the general population, from virtual primary carevisits to mental health services. "Patients and providers continueto push for more virtual care services, and health plans arebeginning to offer more meaningful coverage of these modalities,"the report said. "These laws benefit patients by increasing accessand availability to health care services, and catalyze the growthof telehealth technologies throughout the country."

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Barriers remain, including lack of parity

The report details how the language of telehealth bills canlimit coverage and access to services. In general, more narrowlyfocused legislation tends to inhibit applications that come with agrowing and changing technology. Some states have had to passfollow-up legislation to fix unintended consequences caused bylimited statutes, the report noted. Another issue to watch, thereport said, is cost shifting, as some plans will charge higherdeductibles, co-payments, or maximum benefit caps for servicesprovided via telehealth.

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But the report singled out parity laws as an especiallyimportant issue. Parity is different than coverage, the authorsnoted. Without parity language, insurance carriers could covertelehealth at much lower rates than they cover identical in-personservices.

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"Without payment parity, a health plan could unilaterally decideto pay network providers for telehealth services at 50 percent ofthe reimbursement rate that health plan pays the provider for anidentical in-person service," the report said. "If the healthplan's payment rate is too low, it can create a disincentive forproviders to offer telehealth services, undermining the very policypurposes the coverage law was intended to achieve."

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At the same time, the report recognizes that parity can be atricky concept, since in-person and telehealth visits are by naturedifferent types of care. "Ideally, payment parity laws should notprevent the parties from negotiating for different reimbursementrates for telehealth vs in-person services, so long as suchnegotiations are truly voluntary by the provider and not forcedupon them," the report concludes. "Model payment parity laws shouldnot eliminate opportunities for cost savings and should allowhealth plans and providers to contract for alternative paymentmodels and compensation methodologies for telehealth services, solong as those negotiations are voluntary."

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