Telemedicine bill faces familiar threat over amendment banning abortion drug

The bill passed the Senate with broad support, but state House support is divided after Republicans added the amendment.

  • Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health

*This story has been corrected to reflect that Rep. Rapp represents Warren County, not Beaver County.*

(Harrisburg) — A bill that requires health insurers to cover telemedicine services is facing opposition after Republicans added an amendment that in part bans doctors from prescribing an abortion drug.

Telemedicine uses technology like computers and mobile devices to help doctors and patients communicate. It’s used for medical services ranging from dermatology diagnoses to therapy sessions. Health systems have widely adopted the practice, but insurers don’t always cover it.

The amendment bans the use of telemedicine in prescribing roughly 60 drugs deemed to be higher-risk by the Food and Drug Administration.

The amendment was added to protect patient safety and prevent drug diversion, said Republican house spokesman Mike Straub. The abortion drug mifepristone is only one drug on the list, which also includes opioid replacement therapy drugs like buprenorphine and Vivitrol.

“There’s no effort to restrict people within existing abortion law, and people trying to obtain that medicine could obtain it in the same way that they can obtain it today,” Straub said.

However, doctors already have steps in place to keep patients safe while prescribing the drugs on the FDA’s list, said Lehigh County Democratic state representative Mike Schlossberg.

It makes no sense to legislate a ban on drugs currently on that list, because that list is constantly changing, unless the goal is to block access to what’s on the list now, Schlossberg said.

“We would never dream of tying reimbursement rates to the way medicine was practiced 50, 60, 70 years ago, but if this bill was passed that’s exactly what would happen.”

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf says he had supported the bill but now opposes it, saying the changes “would limit patient access to care.”

A similar telemedicine bill failed to advance to a vote last year after getting caught up in the politics of abortion rights. At the time, Republican state Rep. Kathy Rapp of Warren County insisted that a rule be added to ban telemedicine services from prescribing a medication abortion. Rapp now chairs the House health committee.

The Hospital and Health System Association has lobbied for the bill, and hopes that this time it will pass, according to CEO Andy Carter.

The group has long pointed to telemedicine as a way to improve patient care in underserved areas while cutting costs. In an email, the association pointed to a Towers Watson study that found telemedicine will save the health care industry $6 billion annually “by reducing readmissions, improving staff utilization and preventing hospitalizations.”

“Telemedicine brings needed healthcare services to Pennsylvanians who otherwise might not receive it, at all or in time to make a difference,” Carter said. “We look forward to working with the House to get this issue to the governor.”

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