An important vehicle for providing healthcare services to individuals in the rural setting is telemedicine. Telemedicine uses telecommunications technology with healthcare providers and specialist consults to providers and patients who are located in areas that do not have that level of service available.
Here in Arizona, we are fortunate to have one of the oldest and largest programs in the county in the Arizona Telemedicine Program. This is a statewide program intended to increase access to healthcare to all residents in Arizona using telemedicine technologies. Dr. Ronald Weinstein, the Director of this program, was an early pioneer of the technology. The Center for Rural Health has partnered with Dr. Weinstein and the Arizona Telemedicine Program in numerous ways over an extended period of time and Dr. Weinstein is a frequent presenter and attendee at our Annual Arizona Rural Health Conference and our Rural Health and Public Health Policy Forum.
One barrier to the widespread implementation of telemedicine across the country has been the reimbursement of services. While insurers pay for in-person physician visits with their patients in their office, they have been historically more reluctant to pay for the same type of consultation and physician-patient interaction performed via telemedicine. Fortunately, that is beginning to change as 13 states, plus the District of Columbia, have introduced legislation in 2013 that would further expand the usage and reimbursement of telemedicine services.
Here in Arizona, Senate Bill 1353 was recently passed and it “requires health insurers in the state to cover health care services provided through telemedicine if the service would be covered were it provided through an in-person consultation. The bill defines telemedicine as the use of audio, video, or other electronic media for the purpose of diagnosis, consultation, or treatment.”
The bill received almost unprecedented bi-partisan support as there was not a single negative vote in either the Arizona State Senate or House. Governor Brewer formally signed the bill on May 23 in the University of Arizona Phoenix Biomedical Campus. The bill signing was appropriately performed in the T-Health Institute Amphitheater, funded and used by the Arizona Telemedicine Program.
I was able to attend this event in person, showing our Center’s support for this important piece of legislation. Our Center will continue to partner with the Arizona Telemedicine Program, as we believe it will help us to accomplish our Center’s new mission, “To improve the health and wellness of Arizona’s rural populations.”