Arkansas passes two bills to expand telemedicine access, with one limitation; Utah removes abortion restriction from telemedicine bill

By Heather Mack

The two latest bills in the quest to make telemedicine in Arkansas more like the rest of the country have passed.

House Bill 1437 aims to ease up the restrictions on telemedicine laws that were enacted in 2015 by eliminating the requirement that patients must be at a healthcare facility to receive telemedicine services. The companion legislation, Senate Bill 146, decrees the originating site can be wherever the patient happens to be at the time, but stipulates that a phone call alone is not sufficient to establish the initial professional doctor-patient relationship.

The passage of SB 146 should come as no surprise to those involved, as the bill just received a “do pass” recommendation from the State Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee last week.  However, it isn’t making everyone happy.

Teladoc, which conducts the majority of its visits over the phone, has argued the bill still leaves out a lot of Arkansans because they lack the internet speed required to conduct video visits as a first-time telemedicine visits. It’s listed as the 48th “most connected” -- which is to say, the third least connected -- state in the nation, with over 40 percent of residents without access to broadband at 25 mpbs or faster needed to support video visits.

Even though the legislation will overall improve access to telemedicine for Arkansas, the prohibition of phone calls as a first-time visit “will still disenfranchise a large part of Arkansas and its citizens from access to quality health care,” according to Teladoc’s Vice President of Government Affairs Claudia Tucker in a statement to Politico.

In other telemedicine news, legislators in Utah have removed controversial language on restricting the use of telemedicine to prescribe abortion-inducing medication. As the Salt Lake Tribune reported, legislators want to avoid the possibility that a tangle of lawsuits could prevent the much-needed telehealth measure from passing.

"We need this telehealth bill," Republican Senator Brian Shiozawa, who introduced the amendment, said to the Tribune. “This move is not pro-choice or pro-life; I want to take that off the table."

Along with the obvious ideological undertones, the abortion restriction had also caused a stir for the simple fact that it was in a bill largely dealing with reimbursement models. The amended version passed in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and is on to the full Senate.