U.S. Sen. Angus King is co-sponsoring a bipartisan telehealth bill designed to expand remote health care services through Medicare, improve health outcomes, make it easier for patients to connect with their doctors and help cut costs for patients and providers.

The bill could help patients in rural Maine, where telehealth is seen as an increasingly essential way for patients to receive health care.

“As one of the oldest and most rural states in the nation, Maine faces unique challenges when it comes to connecting our citizens with vital healthcare services,” said King, a Maine independent, in a prepared statement. “Telehealth can mitigate some of these challenges, bridging the distance between older Maine people and their healthcare providers without forcing them to drive long distances. This technology has the potential to transform healthcare in our state, and it is vitally important for Congress to keep pace with the advances in telehealth so we can improve the health of Maine people.”

Many people believe the best way to increase access to quality, affordable health care in Maine is to connect more patients and providers in real time over the internet and cellular networks via an approach known broadly as telehealth, but there are major obstacles.

Broadband communications are essential for providing telehealth services, and many areas of rural Maine still don’t have reliable broadband internet or cellular network access. An equally big problem is that, despite Maine’s recent passage of a parity law requiring Medicaid and private insurance to cover most telehealth and in-person services equally, the federally controlled Medicare does not cover many telehealth services.

The bill would provide the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services the authority to waive telehealth restrictions when necessary, remove geographic restrictions for services such as mental health and emergency medical care, allow rural health clinics and other community-based health care centers to provide telehealth services, and require a study to explore more ways to expand telehealth services so that more people could access health care services in their own homes.

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation have said they would support policy changes to promote rural broadband expansion and make telehealth more accessible to Medicare recipients.

Ironically, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, the biggest potential hurdle to expanding Medicare coverage of telehealth is that some congressional leaders fear telehealth is so effective at improving access to care that it would result in higher Medicare spending overall.

Advocates say telehealth should ideally account for at least 25 percent of all patient-provider interactions, based on Maine’s demographics. Currently it is estimated to comprise less than 5 percent.

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