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Insight IBR Features Article by Tom Mortell – Idaho’s Telehealth Access Act: Another Step Toward Reform

By Thomas J. Mortell,

Many Idaho businesses would argue that relief from ever-increasing insurance premiums is long overdue. The passage of the Idaho Telehealth Access Act might bring part of that relief.

To reduce health care costs, a primary objective of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is to significantly decrease the number of individuals without health insurance. That process is underway, now that many Idaho businesses are required to provide health insurance for their full-time employees or face significant penalties. Many Idahoans have also enrolled for insurance on Your Health Idaho, the Idaho-based health insurance exchange established under the ACA and Idaho law.

As a natural consequence, these Idahoans will seek the services of primary care physicians and other providers. But Idaho has a well-documented shortage of physicians, leading to longer wait times for appointments, increased travel distances for care, shorter physician visit times, more care provided by non-physicians, and higher prices. In some remote areas of Idaho, patients already have limited access to physicians and other health care services.

To address many of these issues, the Idaho Legislature recently passed the Idaho Telehealth Access Act, covering health care services provided through electronic communications or information technology. Telehealth services include a patient’s visit with a physician where the patient and physician share information via telephone and video transmission. The Act was the result of legislation proposed by the Idaho Telehealth Council which included a broad stakeholder base, representing physicians, hospitals, health insurance companies, industry associations, and representatives from governmental agencies.

In passing the Act, the Legislature recognized the benefits of telehealth services to Idaho’s residents. The Act also provided much needed clarity to health care providers and the governmental agencies charged with regulating health care and health insurance in Idaho.

Prior to the Act, there was considerable debate about whether a physician could evaluate and treat patients using a telephone or other means of electronic communication. But the Act has clarified the rules. The initial interaction with the provider must include both an audio and visual component. And in the evaluation of the patient, the provider must obtain and document the patient’s clinical history, current symptoms, underlying conditions, and must document diagnosis and treatment recommendations. The Act allows the telehealth provider to prescribe medications based on an evaluation performed through telehealth services.

The Act also includes important protections for patients. As is required in other health care settings, the Act reaffirms the obligation of the provider to obtain the patient’s informed consent and to maintain appropriate medical records. Telehealth providers must be appropriately licensed and perform services within the scope of those licenses. The telehealth provider must be available for follow-up care or able to provide information on where follow-up care may be obtained. Finally,the telehealth provider must provide the same quality of care as the patient would receive in an in-person setting.

Idaho’s businesses benefit in three ways. First, telehealth services can often be provided at a much lower cost than traditional medical services. Second, they expand access to primary care services, enablingmore Idaho residents to see a physician or other provider sooner rather than later. Third, as in other markets, telehealth companies may make their services available in Idaho as a component for the employee benefit plans offered by Idaho’s employers. Advocates of telehealth services argue that employee productivity can be increased based on time not lost in a physician’s waiting room.

It remains to be seen how Idaho’s health care and health insurance companies will react to this new law. It’s still unknown whether additional telehealth options will become available to Idaho’s business. Hopefully, the Idaho legislature’s willingness to adopt a progressive approach to this component of “health care reform” will pay dividends for Idaho’s businesses.

Tom Mortell is a partner at Hawley Troxell and chairs the firm’s health law practice group. He is also a member of the firm’s governing board. He can be reached at tmortell@hawleytroxell.com.

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