Minnesota state Capitol

The Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul

Telehealth service expansion in Minnesota appears all but certain as state lawmakers approved telehealth proposals this week.

The Senate unanimously passed the so-called Minnesota Telehealth Act Tuesday while the House passed a health and human services omnibus package Monday that included a similar bill.

The bill would raise reimbursement rates for video or audio consultations between patients and medical professionals. It also expands the state’s definitions of telehealth to include more medical services, such as mental health or substance abuse treatment, as well as expand coverage for those services. It also codifies several pandemic-related telehealth measures into law.

Republican Sen. Julie Rosen, of Fairmont, the bill’s Senate sponsor, described the telehealth proposal as a “leap of faith” on the Senate floor Tuesday but stressed the changes were necessary, especially for mental health-related care.

“These folks that have been working with patients and clients that are suffering from mental health have seen a huge uptick through COVID-19 and they’ve responded very, very well,” Rosen said.

Rep. Luke Frederick, DFL-Mankato, said expanding telehealth is a major part of mental health improvements House lawmakers are planning to enact this year.

“Just because the pandemic is going to go away doesn’t mean that telehealth is going away, because it’s not,” Frederick said.

Telehealth is one of the few things that won’t need much discussion when lawmakers head into conference committees to negotiate budget bills next month. Rosen pointed out there are still a few concerns lawmakers may address — she successfully introduced an amendment for a study on how insurance plans and providers adapt to the telehealth changes — but the measure has almost unanimous support within the Legislature.

Yet there’s less agreement over the rest of Minnesota’s proposed health and human service budget over the next two years. The House’s health and human services omnibus spends $16.7 billion in 2022 and 2023, while the Senate budget target for health and human services is set at $16.25 billion. The Senate is set to discuss its health and human services budget Thursday.

Minnesota’s health and human services budget, along with its education budget, usually comprises more than 70% of the state’s spending each two-year budget cycle.

That makes it a prime target for overarching discussions on government spending and unfunded mandates. Republicans oppose Democrat spending on paid medical family leave programs and cash assistance programs, while Democrats oppose Republican plans to continue a reinsurance pool for insurance providers, among other issues.

Frederick said he believes there’s more public support for social safety net programs after Congress stepped in to bolster families and businesses with payments during the pandemic.

“I think people struggle with the government saying, ‘Hey, here’s some money.’ Now that many of us have received checks from the federal government, I think this will make it easier to understand why we need some of these programs,” Frederick said. “There is value to it.”

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