The COVID-19 pandemic has strained the health care system in myriad ways over the past year, but Gov. Charlie Baker said Friday that a “silver lining” of the public health crisis is that reforms like telehealth were able to be tested, and proved effective.
Baker signed into law on New Year’s Day a multi-faceted health care bill that requires insurance companies to cover telehealth visits the same way they cover in-person care, and provides a short-term model for how those services will be paid.
The new law also protects coverage for COVID-19 testing and treatment, expands the scope of practice for advanced practice nurses and optometrists, addresses surprise out-of-network billing by requiring patient notification before non-emergency procedures and gives community hospitals two years of enhanced Medicaid reimbursements.
The final bill was negotiated by new House Speaker Ron Mariano and Sen. Cindy Friedman, but Baker said “thematically” it addressed a lot of the issues he tried to tackle in health care bill filed over a year ago.
“In the midst of all the other difficult and tragic and terrible news around health care in 2020, this is actually a really positive story for patients and practitioners,” Baker said.
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In an interview with the News Service, Baker said he thought the pandemic, in some ways, helped generate the momentum needed to convince policymakers to make some of the changes embraced in the new law.
And as the pandemic continues, Baker said he believes the new law will be effective in giving patients better access to primary and behavioral health care that will both improve health outcomes and control costs by keeping people out of costlier emergency and inpatient care settings.
“This is a little bit of a silver lining, the experience people had with some of these issues in 2020 and as a result the Legislature baked it into state law,” Baker said. “The concern that people always had with some of this stuff was whether it would be effective. Will it be useful? I think the practical experience helped get some people there.”
Baker filed a comprehensive health care bill in October 2019 before the pandemic changed people’s priorities and focus on Beacon Hill and put the health care system under a microscope. That bill proposed to do many of things the law he signed Friday will accomplish, including equal insurance coverage for in-person and telehealth services.
The main thrust of Baker’s 2019 bill, however, was to require providers and insurers to boost their spending on addiction services, behavioral health, primary care and geriatric services by 30 percent over three years.
The compromise legislation he signed Friday does not provide the same type of financial incentive to refocus the health system on preventative care, and Baker said it may be something he returns to.
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