On Thursday, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed the Patients First Act, the third piece of signature healthcare legislation advanced by the body to increase access to health care, protect patients, and enhance quality care. The legislation builds on vital lessons learned during the COVID-19 public health crisis, as unprecedented demands on the healthcare system have prompted innovation and the expedited adoption of policy changes.
“This bill addresses an issue that is so important to the residents of Massachusetts – ensuring access to high quality, affordable healthcare for all,” said Senator Jason Lewis. “I’m proud that the telehealth section of this bill is based on legislation I filed last year. Telehealth has emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic as absolutely essential for the delivery of many healthcare services, including primary care, mental health, chronic disease management, and some specialty care. Broad access to telehealth will remain critical for the delivery of convenient, high quality, affordable healthcare even after the pandemic.”
Senator Lewis is a longstanding proponent of telehealth expansion and affordability in Massachusetts, and his telehealth legislation filed last January formed the basis for the Patients First Act.
The Patients First Act ensures that telehealth services are available across the Commonwealth –services that have experienced a dramatic expansion during the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling patients across the state to continue receiving vital medical care through phone or videoconference without risking exposure to the coronavirus. Experience from the last few months has shown that telehealth has the ability to improve efficiency and expand access to care. These services, however, were not widely utilized before COVID-19.
The bill does the following to put patients first:
- Requires insurance carriers, including MassHealth, to cover telehealth services in any case where the same in-person service would be covered. It also ensures that telehealth services include care through audio-only telephone calls, and requires reimbursement rates to match in-person services over the next two years.
- Eliminates “surprise billing,” the unfair practice of charging patients who are unaware they received health care services outside of their insurance network for costs that insurance carriers refuse to pay. The situation is common especially prior to a planned procedure, and it can be impossible to avoid uncovered services, particularly in emergency situations.
- Expands the scope of practice for several health care professionals, increasing patient access to critical care. The bill would allow registered nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists and psychiatric nurse mental health specialists to practice independently as long as they meet certain education and training standards.
- Recognizes pharmacists as health care providers, enabling them to integrate more fully into coordinated care teams.
- Creates a new professional license for “dental therapists,” who will be authorized to provide dental hygiene and other oral health services, which will help expand access to dental care in underserved communities.
- Tasks state health care oversight agencies to analyze and report on the effects COVID-19 has had on the Commonwealth’s health care delivery system as it relates to accessibility, quality and fiscal sustainability. The analysis will include an inventory of all health care services and resources serving Massachusetts residents from birth to death, as well as an analysis of existing health care disparities due to economic, geographic, racial or other factors.
The passage of the Patients First Act marks the third major piece of healthcare legislation passed in the Senate this session, in addition to the Pharmaceutical Access, Costs and Transparency (PACT) Act and the Mental Health Addressing Barriers to Care (ABC) Act.
The Patients First Act now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.