FILE - Telemedicine

(The Center Square) – A bill expanding and making permanent telehealth in Texas heads to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk for his signature. Telemedicine, or telehealth, allows physicians to care for patients outside the traditional office visit.

During the state shutdown last year, Abbott temporarily granted state waivers to allow medical services to be provided by existing Texas Health and Human Services Commission programs to patients via telemedicine/telehealth. The waivers helped patients receive timely health care through online appointments and were also shown to be cost effective.

The new bill makes these waivers permanent and expands access to care in a number of ways.

HB 4, filed by Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, received widespread public and bipartisan support. It passed unanimously in the House and Senate by votes of 147-0, and 30-0, respectively.

“Leveraging technology,” Price argues, “has the potential of continuing to improve patient outcomes by having the patient seen and receiving treatment in a more timely manner. Also, the utilization of telemedicine provides greater access to medical specialists statewide.”

The legislation was filed in response to Abbott calling on the legislature to make the waivers permanent. In his State of the State address in February, Abbott said Texas "should seize the opportunity this session to permanently expand telemedicine so that every Texan in every region of the state can benefit," which is what the bill seeks to do.

Abbott is expected to sign the bill into law, which would be effective Sept. 1.

The bill addresses gaps related to the use of technology in delivering services and information to many Texas patients.

It allows for the creation of guidelines on how providers can use e-mail or text messages to communicate with patients, allows the use of “telecommunications or information technology” in outpatient programs for substance abuse treatment, and adds rural health clinics to the list of providers, including federally qualified health centers.

It includes Medicaid and public health plans, preventive health and wellness screenings, case management services, physical, occupational and speech therapy, nutritional counseling, assessments and behavioral health services, among other types of office visits.

It will remove the Texas Medical Board’s authorization to establish a blanket requirement for initial in-person visits, the Texas Medical Association says. However, the board is still authorized to make sure “patients using telemedicine services receive appropriate, quality care.” The law still requires “physicians to meet the same standard of care as that required for an in-person visit,” meaning, if a physical exam or other aspect of an in-person visit would be required to meet the standard of care, the patient would need to be seen in-person, not virtually.

The new law also removes the requirement for a clinical place of service, as long as the standard of care is uncompromised. Previously, the board imposed certain requirements based on the location of the patient, the assocation notes.

“New rules remove the location distinctions, placing emphasis instead on establishing a patient-physician relationship and satisfying the standard of care,” it states.

The association has provided information on its website about what the new law means for patients and how they can use technology to participate in telemedicine.