Virtual visits 2021 file

Tracy Culbertson, oncology nurse manager at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, tests out virtual visit technology on her computer terminal in April 2020. 

MANKATO — Accessing health care has drastically changed over the past year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers are working to make many of those state-mandated changes permanent.

At the halfway point of this year’s legislative session, the Minnesota Legislature is working out the kinks in expanding telehealth access for people across the state. Legislators are discussing several bills on the issue, from interstate telehealth access to addressing how telehealth services are financially reimbursed.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, is sponsoring an overarching telehealth bill to help codify many of Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders on telehealth as many Minnesotans turn to video appointments or phone calls for medical help.

“We’re seeing increases of up to 30% of visits in June of last year, whereas before it was 2% of visits,” Rosen told lawmakers at a Senate human services committee hearing Tuesday. “It is a very important option for the patient and a critical tool in delivering health care.”

Lawmakers have sought ways to protect expanded telehealth services since the beginning of the year as public health and hospital industry advocates tout the successes they’ve seen in telehealth care over the past year.

Randy Farrow, CEO of Mankato Clinic, wrote in a letter to lawmakers the local medical center had more than 39,500 telehealth visits since April 2020, with about 3,500 telehealth appointments per month.

“In some cases, we were able to see patients with COVID symptoms virtually,” Farrow wrote. “In other cases, our most vulnerable patients were able to receive care in the safety of their homes.”

Rosen’s bill, and a similar bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Kelly Morrison of Deephaven in the House, would help streamline the state’s telehealth policies and expand coverage for mental health practitioner and substance use counselor visits. The bills would get rid of a limit on telehealth visits and would also ensure health care professionals get reimbursed at the same rates for telehealth services as they would for in-person appointments.

Rosen noted telehealth services have been especially useful for mental health and substance use disorder care. While there are still some challenges in wording certain areas, such as children’s mental health case management, many health-care experts and advocates say the proposal is a necessary step to help residents throughout the state.

“This is absolutely a necessary advancement of policy,” Angie Youngerberg, director of business operations for Blue Earth County Human Services, said.

Youngerberg told lawmakers patients and clients have done a much better job keeping to appointments and check-ups through audio or video meetings. Advocates also say using telehealth services to monitor patients helps cut down on health-care costs, through Rosen noted those efforts also come with a variety of rules around who can be treated and monitored.

While Minnesota has sanctioned telehealth services since 2015, lawmakers and advocates note many of those services have evolved and expanded over the past six years.

“Telehealth is not going away,” Rosen said.

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