In some ways Arizona has been leading the way in terms of leveraging telehealth as a means of improving access to care. The UA Telemedicine program was established 25 years ago and has successfully built infrastructure and partnership agreements that has laid groundwork to bring telehealth to the next level.

COVID-19 provided a big push to use telehealth in a more widespread way, including within AHCCCS. Executive orders early on pushed health plans to pay for appropriate telehealth services. A new law passed and signed last week (HB 2454) locks in telehealth services for the future, expanding statewide use of virtual video and audio doctors visits.

It’s a long bill – but the opening line gives you a sense of what it does:

All contracts issued, delivered or renewed on or after 7 January 1, 2018 in Arizona must provide coverage for health care services that are provided through telehealth if the health care service would be covered were it provided through an in-person consultation encounter between the subscriber and a health care provider and provided to a subscriber receiving the service.

The new law:

  • Ensures doctors receive equal compensation from insurance companies for telehealth services.

  • Allows out-of-state health care providers to practice telehealth in Arizona.

  • Ensures payment parity for audio-only medical visits for patients without internet access.

  • Prohibits health care boards from enforcing any rule that requires a patient to visit in-person before being prescribed most medications.

Importantly, there are no exemptions for our Medicaid program, so telehealth can become an increasingly important way to reduce health disparities especially in rural and underserved areas with thin network access.

Perhaps Dr. Ronald Weinstein (founding director of the University of Arizona’s Arizona Telemedicine Program and a president emeritus of the American Telemedicine Association) said it best in this article from the Arizona Republic yesterday:

The UA’s Arizona Telemedicine Program is 25 years old, but telehealth has been around even longer, Weinstein said. Until the pandemic, efforts to get telehealth more widely used have been hindered by regulations and reimbursement challenges, he said.

“It’s really been held with a brake on it for 50-plus years and waiting to be proven,” he said. “COVID came along, and social distancing and so forth, and within a month the amount of telemedicine being done in the United States went up about 3,000%.”

The rapid removal of the regulations and fragmented payments that had been holding telehealth back is what Weinstein calls an interesting example of innovation acceleration.

“What are the major things that are innovation acceleration? Natural disasters, pandemics and wars,” Weinstein said. “Digital medicine has moved ahead 10 years within the period of a month.”

One of our breakout sessions at our August 26 AzPHA Annual Conference will focus on the future of telehealth in Arizona’s Medicaid program AHCCCS.

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