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Broader telemedicine access coming to Pennsylvania

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(The Center Square) – Insurance coverage for telemedicine will soon be the rule, not the exception, in Pennsylvania.

A bill headed to Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk requires insurers, both public and private, to cover services rendered virtually. Doing so, supporters say, means more people can access healthcare – even if they live hours from the nearest hospital, can’t drive to a doctor’s office or find child care.

Senate Bill 739 makes good on a longtime commitment from state lawmakers to modernize telemedicine access after the pandemic made it a routine form of care. The legislation means insurers can’t deny typically covered services just because providers treat patients virtually.

Prime sponsor Sen. Elder Vogel Jr., R-Rochester, said Wednesday he’s grateful for the “vast amount of bipartisan support” the expansion received in both the House and the Senate after years of negotiations.

“This legislation is key to expanding access to telemedicine services to Pennsylvanians and allowing our residents to take care of their health in a way that suits their needs and schedules,” he said.

Residents living in Vogel’s district in Beaver County face the same access struggles that other rural communities nationwide do: hospital closures, mergers and workforce shortages consolidate care farther away.

In Pennsylvania, 33 hospitals have closed in the last 20 years, with 15 closures in the last five. Like other states, experts have pointed to getting more doctors and nurses into rural areas.

Though dozens of states embraced telehealth and insurance rules due to the pandemic, the details differ. Since 2021, 25 states have changed their laws to accommodate remote medicine. The majority, 41 states and the District of Columbia, have laws requiring coverage parity that means private insurers must cover telehealth similarly to in-person care.

Much of the regulatory flexibility that happened during the pandemic, though, was temporary. Pennsylvania received high marks for its embrace of telehealth in one study, but restricted patient access to out-of-state doctors.

With expansion of access, rural communities may have the most to gain because they have fewer providers. Telehealth has also helped with the opioid crisis, some health care workers say, because it gives them flexibility to connect with patients across multiple sites and ensure compliance.

Anthony Hennen contributed to this report.

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