Arkansas bill aimed at loosening telemedicine restrictions advances

By Heather Mack

Arkansas legislators are making headway on their quest to ease telemedicine restrictions in the state.

The State Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee voted in favor of recommending a “do pass” for Senate Bill 146, which is authored by committee chairperson Sen. Cecile Bledsoe and proposes a change in doctor-patient relationship establishment requirements in a 2015 telemedicine bill, Arkansas' Southwest Times Record reports.The bill now moves to the full Senate.

As it now stands, a healthcare professional must strike up a professional relationship with a patient in specific ways before they can provide telemedicine services: either meet with the would-be patient in person, or via audio and visual technology, during which the patient must be at a designated “originating site” that is a licensed healthcare facility.

Senate Bill 146 proposes to change that stipulation so the originating site is wherever the patient happens to be at that time, and also expands the definition of what is considered telemedicine.

“It expands to include all types of electronic information and communication technology,” Bledsoe told Arkansas NPR affiliate KUAF. “You can even use your iPhone.”

The bill also puts forth that telemedicine visits should be covered by health insurance “on the same basis as the health benefit plan provides coverage and reimbursement for health services provided in person.”

Proponents of the bill, which include medical and hospital associations, posit that it will greatly expand service to those living in rural areas of the state, or who are unable to regularly visit a doctor. Indeed, it would get Arkansas, which lags behind the rest of the country in telemedicine access, closer to allowing the full scope of telehealth offerings, but opponents point out that notably absent from the bill is a provision to require parental authorization of telemedicine services for children in schools.

“You’re writing a law that’s going to go in the statute that doesn’t even say anything about the parent or the guardian giving consent,” KUAF reported Democratic Senator Stephanie Flowers as saying. “Some parents object to some things, procedures that might go against their religious beliefs. I think the parent certainly ought to be mentioned.”

Progress on the telemedicine front may be inching along in Arkansas, but it is getting there: In October, the state’s Medical Board unanimously passed requirements allowing doctors to examine patients from afar through audio and visual technology. This followed a holdup from August when the state passed one medical board rule to expand telehealth services, but rejected a second that changed requirements for doctors’ use of telemedicine. When the regulations passed in October, the American Telemedicine Association said the Arkansas Board of Medicine had  “finally joined the ranks of every other medical board in the country.”Yung-96 - Silver Metallic