DC telehealth bill would expand physician pool for underserved areas of city

Dive Brief:

  • D.C. Council Delegate Vincent Gray introduced a bill to facilitate doctors practicing telemedicine across state lines, Washington Business Journal reported.
  • The bill, introduced Tuesday, would authorize the District of Columbia to join an interstate compact created by the Federation of State Medical Boards with the aim of standardizing the licensing process for physicians from the various jurisdictions and speeding up cross-border access to care.
  • Gray’s aim is to make it easier for physicians outside the nation’s capital to diagnose and treat patients in the city, especially in medically underserved neighborhoods like those east of the Anacostia River.

Dive Insight:

Seventeen states are currently in the compact: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Virginia and Maryland, which share borders with D.C., are not members.

Other states are expanding access to telehealth services. In Virginia last month, legislators passed a law allowing optometrists and ophthalmologists to see patients and prescribe medications using telehealth modalities, provided they meet certain requirements such as getting an updated medical history from the patient and being licensed to practice in Virginia. The law contrasts with a measure approved in South Carolina last year that prohibits app-based or online eye exams.

According to a recent survey by Univera Healthcare, just 6% of people in upstate New York have used telemedicine. Most of those cited a preference for in-person visits as the reason for not trying it. Of those who did, however, 80% called their telehealth experience “very good” or “excellent.”

Telehealth has been widely promoted as a way to expand access to care while reducing the costs associated with face-to-face medical care. But the jury is still out on whether treating patients remotely actually lowers healthcare costs. According to a recent study published in Health Affairs, average annual spending on acute respiratory illness increased by $45 per telehealth user — mainly due to new utilization, which accounted for 88% of telehealth visits.

The survey, by RAND Corporation, suggests the need for telehealth policies that optimize the potential for cost savings, such as greater patient cost sharing for telehealth visits and targeted outreach programs.

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