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Telehealth Bills Gaining Support

Kelly White, a nurse at UPMC Northwest, inspects Jane Johnson's hands during a telemedicine conference with Dr. Christine Peoples. Photo by Maddie McGarvey

By Cristina Rouvalis

Jane Johnson’s hands and knuckles are so swollen from her arthritis that she can no longer wear her rings and perform simple every­day tasks. “I can’t open a bag of potato chips,” she said. “My hands hurt when I drive.”

The 75-year-old retired teacher dreaded driving for an hour and a half from her home in rural Franklin to a recommended specialist in Pittsburgh.

Instead of traveling such a long distance, she drives seven miles down the road to the Teleconsult Center at UPMC Northwest. Sitting in a comfortable chair, she peers at a computer screen and talks to Christine Peoples, M.D., via the internet. A nurse manipulates her joints, and Johnson tells the rheumatologist whether a finger or ankle joint hurts.

For Johnson, it’s as though Peoples, a specialist calling from Pittsburgh, is in the same room. Johnson praises the convenience and care she gets through telemedicine. This growing trend makes it possible for patients to use videoconferencing to access specialist physicians from local clinics and even from their homes.

“I think telemedicine is the greatest thing since fried eggs,” Johnson said. “I have never met Dr. Peoples, but she is totally homed in on me. We talk back and forth. It’s so much more relaxing than traveling. You don’t have to worry about traffic tie-ups, unknown roads in the city, and finding parking and the office.”

When the General Assembly resumes in January, AARP Pennsylvania will support bills sponsored by Sen. Elder Vogel Jr. (R-New Sewickley) and Rep. Marguerite Quinn (R-Doylestown) that would make telemedicine more accessible and insurance coverage more consistent.

With expanded use of telemedicine, “older Pennsylvanians won’t have to worry about transportation, especially in rural areas,” said Ray Landis, advocacy manager for AARP Pennsylvania.

One of the barriers to telemedicine now is that “people are not sure whether their insurance covers it. It’s not clear,” Landis said. “These bills would clarify it.”

The Hospital and Health­system Association of Pennsylvania worked with both sponsors on the bills. Telemedicine is growing in fields such as stroke care, dermatology and psychiatry, said Scott Bishop, its senior vice president for legislative advocacy.

“Not a lot of psychiatrists are practicing in rural areas,” he said. “Telepsychiatry is a key resource for these communities. In a lot of ways, telemedicine can provide access to high-quality care.”

Other legislative priorities
Following a Commonwealth Court ruling that said it is unconstitutional to impose a lifetime employment ban on direct care workers convicted of certain crimes, Rep. Tim Hennessey (R-North Coventry) introduced a bill seeking to set constitutional guidelines on employment restrictions while protecting the safety of residents receiving long-term services. AARP supports Hennessey’s approach.

Landis said this would open opportunities to someone who was convicted at 17 of minor crimes.

AARP also plans to fight any legislation that would deregulate landline telephone service. Such a move would “run the risk of making local phone service unaffordable in areas where cellphones don’t work well,” Landis said. “It would raise costs and threaten access in rural areas, where consumers tend to be older.”

Cristina Rouvalis is a writer living in Pittsburgh.

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