Arkansas deserves 21st century telehealth access

by Sen. Dan Sullivan ([email protected]) 547 views 

Most Arkansans don’t know what they are missing when it comes to the modern delivery of health care. In 49 other states, hundreds of innovative telehealth companies are offering a wide variety of health care services through technology. This has been going on for nearly a decade now, but not in Arkansas. Changing this tragic and indefensible state of affairs should be addressed in the 2021 legislative session, and in a manner that finally puts patients’ needs first.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an executive order in March 2020 that waived some of the more archaic state telehealth rules and regulations that prevented Arkansas patients from accessing care. House Bill 1063 proposes to make those changes permanent. It deserves approval and emergency enactment. 

If enacted, House Bill 1063 would amend state law to allow patients to establish a relationship with a provider through the use of any appropriate technology rather than requiring an in-person visit take place first. This is especially important in a pandemic, but there are many reasons why it is always important to have this kind of access. Here are a few:

  • Every county except one in Arkansas is designated as medically underserved by the federal government. 
  • Nearly half of Arkansans do not have a primary care physician.
  • The Natural State is rural and beautiful, but that means long drives to get treatment even for minor health conditions.
  • Many Arkansans are living in poverty, and the cost of health care is a significant barrier to access.

If it were not for the current emergency order, the statutory and regulatory environment in Arkansas would still be denying patients access to telehealth. As policymakers, we should not let this stand. 

The other critical thing the legislature must do is ensure the legislation they pass is not overly prescriptive in the types of technology that may be used. Different health issues may require diagnosis or treatment through varying technologies, and these decisions should be made using the medical professional’s expertise and judgment rather than a misguided state mandate. 

Healthcare professionals are equipped with the knowledge and skill to utilize the appropriate technology to meet the standard of care. This technology-neutral approach is another issue that nearly every state has already adopted, after recognizing that specifying technologies in statute carries no benefit to patients and only serve to limit access. 

House Bill 1063 offers Arkansas a chance to leap forward and join other states in embracing the benefits of telehealth. Telehealth can be a significant part of our strategy to address public healthcare challenges, but not if arbitrary restrictions that have no clinical evidence to support them are part of Arkansas’ laws and regulations. 

Several years ago, when this issue was first being debated in the Arkansas Capitol, the legislature decided to go slow on telehealth. This approach, which proponents characterized as cautious, has always been based on the established medical community’s desire to protect their brick-and-mortar offices from what they perceived as an existential threat to their business. The underlying motives were hidden behind a façade of theoretical patient safety issues – a façade that has since crumbled under data from years of experience nationwide as well as the past year under the emergency executive order in Arkansas. 

The consequence of this protectionist strategy is that Arkansas has been left far behind the rest of the nation regarding advancement in remote health care innovations. With COVID-19 as a tailwind, states all across the country have enacted even more permissive telehealth statutes. Meanwhile, Arkansas continues to ponder the question and residents continue to go without this modern way of delivering quality, affordable and accessible health care.

The forces that have held Arkansas back are still active today and may yet undermine this well-informed attempt to embrace telehealth. For the sake of the health of Arkansas, it is paramount that rational thought and years’ worth of data overcome the self-serving opposition. 

The evidence is clear: Telehealth is safe. It is invaluable. And it is a vital way to expand access to care to everyone, everywhere – Arkansas included. 

Editor’s note: Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, represents Senate District 21. The opinions expressed are those of the author.