Senators propose new bills to increase telemedicine access for substance abuse disorders

By Laura Lovett
04:00 pm

A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a slew of new bills that seek to increase access to telemedicine treatment for patients with substance abuse disorders. The proposed bills, three of which are telehealth-focused, are expected to be wrapped into a larger legislative package by the Senate Finance Committee and then undergo the markup process in the near future. 

“While South Dakota is fortunate to have lower rates of opioid-related deaths compared to other states, our communities are not immune to those dangers,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who introduced the e-Treat Act, said in a statement. “Many South Dakotans face real challenges with addiction, whether it’s from opioids or other substances, like alcohol or methamphetamines. Expanding treatment options through telehealth is just one way we can provide individuals who are battling substance use disorder with the help they need.”

The opioid epidemic is so prevalent, some are calling it the “modern plague” of America. In fact, opioid overdoses have become so common that they are the number one cause of injury-related deaths in the US, according to CDC reports.

As the death rate for the opioid epidemic rises, officials have started to take notice. In the fall President Donald Trump declared the epidemic a “National Public Health Emergency.” The announcement brought the epidemic to the forefront, however, it only meant $57,000 in new funding towards the crisis. 

The new bills look at everything from breaking down geographical restrictions of telemedicine to setting best practice for treating kids with substance abuse disorder through telemedicine. 

The bills in the potential legislative package aren’t the first telehealth bills introduced in the Senate to help combat the opioid crisis. In April the Senate passed the Opioid Crisis Act of 2018, which outlines the importance of telemedicine in treating the epidemic. It also requires the Drug Enforcement Agency to create guidelines around how much providers can prescribe through telemedicine. 

The five new proposed bills include:

The e-Treat Act proposes that Medicaid expand telemedicine services for opioid and substance abuse disorders by eliminating originating site geographic restrictions for telehealth services. 

One new bill focuses on kids. The Telehealth for Children’s Access to Services and Treatment Act calls on the comptroller general to evaluate access to telehealth and remote monitoring services to treat substance abuse disorder for pediatric patients under Medicaid. 

“The evaluation shall include, an analysis of State options for improving children’s access to such services and treatment and for improving outcomes, including by increasing the number of Medicaid providers who offer services or treatment for substance use disorders in a school-based health center using telehealth services, particularly in rural and underserved areas,” the proposed bill reads. “The evaluation shall include an analysis of Medicaid provider reimbursement rates for services and treatment for substance use disorders.”

Lastly, the Medicaid Substance Treatment Via Telehealth Act would require the HHS secretary to guide states in regards to federal reimbursement for treating substance use disorder under Medicaid using telehealth. 

In addition to the telehealth-focused bills the legislation package is expected to include The Comprehensive Screenings for Seniors Act, which proposes a change to the Social Security Act so that a screening for potential substance use disorders and a review of current opioid prescriptions would be part of the initial preventive physical exam and annual wellness visit in the Medicare program. It will also include a bill called the Enhancing Patient Access to Non-Opioid Treatment Options Act, which proposes that the HHS secretary provide guidance to states about Medicaid items and services for non-opioid pain treatment and management. 


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