Massachusetts governor signs law safeguarding telehealth coverage

The new legislation would implement permanent rate parity for virtual behavioral health services, among its other provisions.
By Kat Jercich
04:22 PM
Gov. Charlie Baker at a lectern

Paul Marotta/Getty Images
 

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a wide-ranging bill that includes expanding access to telehealth after the COVID-19 public health emergency abates.

The legislation, which Baker signed on Friday, also includes provisions expanding the scope of practice for several types of clinicians; requiring providers to notify patients in advance about whether a procedure is in or out of network; increasing access to urgent care; and mandating insurance coverage for all COVID-19 related emergency, inpatient and cognitive rehab services.

"I am proud to sign this legislation which promotes telehealth services that have become vital during this pandemic, expands access to high-quality, affordable care, takes steps to protect consumers from surprise medical bills, and preserves access to COVID-19 testing and treatment," said Baker in a statement.

WHY IT MATTERS

At the beginning of the COVID-19 public health emergency, Baker enacted an emergency order requiring insurers to cover telehealth in order to help ensure provider and patient safety. The new law makes some of those changes permanent, although others are only extended.

For example, the new law mandates that insurers cover virtual behavioral health services at the same rate as in-person services, and requires rate parity for primary care and chronic disease-management services for two years.

It also requires rate parity across the board for 90 days past the end of the state of emergency.

"Coverage for telehealth services may include utilization review, including preauthorization, to determine the appropriateness of telehealth as a means of delivering a health care service; provided, however, that the determination shall be made in the same manner as if the service was delivered in person," read the bill.

The law will also make permanent measures to expand scope of practice for nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, psychiatric nurse mental health specialists and optometrists, and eliminate referral requirements before urgent care visits, among other provisions.

"The legislation addresses several key factors in making healthcare more accessible and medical bills less surprising,” said Rep. Randy Hunt, R-Sandwich, in a statement. 

"Telehealth is here to stay and, combined with expansion of practice responsibilities, more people in more places will receive quality medical care," he added.

“The ATA applauds Governor Baker, new House Speaker Ron Mariano, Senator Cindy Friedman and members of the conference committee for their leadership in taking this important step towards making telehealth a permanent option in this sensible and laudable legislation,” said Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, in a statement.

"This is positive and much-needed legislation to start 2021 off on the right foot," Johnson continued.

THE LARGER TREND

With broad vaccine rollout (hopefully) on the horizon, the future of telehealth has taken on new urgency in the coming year. 

Much of the uncertainty has centered on insurance coverage, with some private insurers already moving to roll back coverage of virtual care while others have taken steps in the opposite direction.

And while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has moved to make some coverage permanent, Administrator Seema Verma said it would be up to the U.S. Congress to enact more lasting changes.

ON THE RECORD

"This legislation continues to advance our shared goal of transforming mental health care access and delivery in Massachusetts," said Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro. "This legislation will do so much good, but particularly it will expand mental health care access for rural residents, people of color, working families, and young people."

 

Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Email: kjercich@himss.org
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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