- Associated Press - Sunday, January 8, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A lack of health care in rural Nebraska is prompting a new push by lawmakers to expand telehealth services.

Two bills introduced last week would encourage more providers to adopt the technology, which allows doctors and patients to connect remotely through the internet or by phone.

Both measures are designed to serve smaller communities that have health clinics but few if any full-time doctors, said Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, the lead sponsor.

“As we consider the shortage of doctors and practitioners throughout the state, we’re going to need telehealth,” Kolterman said.

Supporters say the technology allows rural patients to meet with specialists in Omaha or Lincoln without having to travel and reduces the workload for doctors at smaller community hospitals. Some rural hospitals use telemedicine carts loaded with equipment and high-resolution cameras.

One proposal would require health insurance companies to cover any service offered through telehealth that’s already covered for an in-person consultation. Although many Nebraska doctors have already embraced the technology, some have been reluctant because they don’t know whether insurers will reimburse them.

The legislation extends a requirement to private insurers that’s already in place for Medicaid, said Elisabeth Hurst, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Hospital Association.

Hurst said encouraging the technology would help doctors, psychologists and other health professionals work more efficiently and reduce travel times for patients in rural areas.

“If there’s a clinic (in a smaller town), you could go there to access the equipment and consult with a doctor,” Hurst said.

The bill has support from an insurance industry trade group, which sees it as a way to reduce the costs of a doctor’s visit. Most insurance carriers have been looking to provide the coverage anyway, said Craig Currier, a lobbyist for the Omaha-based Nebraska Association of Health Underwriters.

“Telehealth is kind of the wave of the future as far as accessing the health system,” Currier said.

Currier said telehealth can help catch illnesses earlier because it’s easier for an employee to log onto a telehealth website at work than to schedule an in-person appointment. The cost of an in-person doctor’s visit for a minor ailment can range from $200 to $250, he said, whereas a telehealth consultation may cost as little as $20.

The other measure would require Nebraska to join the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, an agreement that offers expedited licensing for doctors who want to practice medicine in other member states. Doing so would allow out-of-state doctors to treat Nebraska patients remotely, and Nebraska doctors to examine patients in other member states.

“It streamlines the process,” Hurst said.

At least 17 states have passed laws to adopt the compact, including neighboring Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Kansas.

Former state Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha introduced a bill last year that would have added Nebraska, but the measure stalled in committee because of technical problems with the proposal.

Other obstacles include the expense of buying and maintaining the equipment when hospitals are trying to cut costs and the training requirements to use it properly.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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