By Bob Katzen

The House 158-0, approved a bill that sponsors say will increase access to health care, protect patients and enhance quality care. Key provisions would require health insurers to cover telehealth visits for primary care and chronic disease management at the same rate as in-person visits for one year. Behavioral telehealth services, over both phone and video, would be covered at the same rate as in-person care permanently. The Senate has approved a different version of the legislation and a House-Senate conference committee will work out a compromise.

The measure also includes protections against “surprise billing,” the much-criticized practice of charging unsuspecting patients who received health care services outside of their insurance plan’s network for costs that insurers refuse to pay. Another provision would allow registered nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists and psychiatric nurse mental health specialists who meet specific education and training standards to practice independently.

Amy Rosenthal, Executive Director of Health Care For All, said she is encouraged by the House passage of the bill which takes some important steps to address issues and gaps in health care access for residents during the COVID-19 pandemic and the future.

“Telehealth has proven to be a crucial tool for consumers to be connected to care during the confinement and economic reopening stages,” said Rosenthal. “The House bill takes strides to extend the state emergency order that allows the implementation of telehealth for the delivery of health care services, including for oral health and behavioral health, for at least the next twelve months. This piece of legislation also tackles surprise medical billing by temporarily prohibiting out-of-network billing practices for one year for emergency and inpatient services.”

Rosenthal said she is disappointed that the Legislature did not adopt a critical provision to ensure access to medications for certain chronic conditions and potential COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Although no senators voted against the bill, some small businesses and health insurance companies have expressed some concerns that it goes too far. “We believe requiring plans to pay telehealth at an in-person rate for two years is too long, and we recommend a shorter time frame for the sunset of payment parity such as 90 days after rescission of the governor’s executive order mandating telehealth,” said the leaders of Retailers Association of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Association of Health Plans and the state chapter of the National Federal of Independent Business.

They suggested that a transition period tied to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic would allow for payers and providers to negotiate appropriate reimbursement for certain health care services that may not represent a comprehensive in-person consultation between a member and a provider. They also argued that currently contracted rates between providers and insurers for telehealth services cannot be circumvented by statute.

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