Mass Legislature Passes Comprehensive Health Care Legislation Amid Pandemic

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The following is a press release from Senate President Karen Spilka’s office.

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BOSTON – Today, December 23, Senate President Karen E. Spilka and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, along with their colleagues in the Legislature, voted to pass An Act promoting a resilient health care system that puts patients first. 

This landmark legislation, which includes a number of notable health care reforms, expands patient access to care by lifting barriers to accessing telehealth services, broadens the scope of practice for certain health care professionals, requires advance notice of a provider’s network status in order to avoid surprise medical bills and improves coverage for COVID-19 testing and treatment amid the most serious public health crisis in modern history.

“This pandemic has brought an urgency to the need to make quality healthcare more accessible to all,” said Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland). “By eliminating barriers to care, protecting patients from surprise billing practices, and advancing our state’s support for community hospitals, testing sites and medical staff, this comprehensive legislation will equip healthcare providers to truly put patients first. I am particularly happy that rate parity for telehealth services will remain a permanent option for Massachusetts patients – thereby expanding efficiency in care while reducing stress for everyone involved. I want to offer my thanks to Senator Friedman, Leader Mariano and their fellow conferees for their hard work, as well as Speaker DeLeo for his partnership in advancing these significant reforms.”

The bill now goes to the Governor.

“This legislation advances health care reform efforts backed by the House and brought into fine focus during to the COVID-19 pandemic including a permanent telehealth coverage mandate, protections for consumers from surprise medical bills and much needed financial assistance to our community hospitals on the frontlines of patient care,” said Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “These are comprehensive and necessary reforms that will strengthen the Massachusetts health care system. I am grateful to Leader Mariano, who has been instrumental in reforming health care in Massachusetts, including our landmark 2012 law, and my colleagues in the House for their work to advance this legislation, and thank Senate President Spilka and our colleagues in the Senate for their partnership.”

“This conference committee report embraces the best of both the Senate and House bills to create comprehensive and necessary healthcare reforms,” said Senator Cindy F. Friedman (D-Arlington), co-chair of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. “While there is still more to do to improve patient outcomes and access to care, this bill takes a meaningful step forward by ensuring that the Commonwealth’s healthcare system can continue to meet the needs of patients during this unprecedented time, and long after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. I am grateful to the House for their collaboration and to Senate President Spilka and Chair Rodrigues for their leadership and for giving me the opportunity and responsibility to help the Senate negotiate a resolution to this significant bill.”

“This legislation will help mitigate the current strain on the health care sector’s finances and workforce caused by the pandemic, while also ushering in a long-lasting transformation in the way people access health care services,” said Majority Leader Ronald Mariano (D-Quincy). “From guaranteeing telehealth coverage to expanding the practice authority of certain advanced practice nurses, this bill is an important step in our recovery.”

“The conference report continues to advance our goal of transforming mental health care access and delivery in Massachusetts,” said State Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro), co-chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery. “This legislation will do so much good, but particularly it will expand mental health care access for rural residents, people of color, working families, and young people.”

“I am proud to support COVID-19 relief for all citizens of our Commonwealth, and this legislation will remove barriers for patients and strengthen our health care infrastructure,” said Representative John Mahoney (D-Worcester), Chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health.

“Our caucus has consistently worked to secure many of the key components of this bill, including expanded scopes of practice for health care providers, the deployment and maintenance of expansive telehealth services to serve patients efficiently and effectively without them having to leave home, and a greater role for pharmacists in the delivery of health care,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester). “While these things have always been important, the global pandemic has stress – tested our health care system in a way that illustrates even more clearly the need to act on them.

The passage of the bill signals the strengthening of medical care in our Commonwealth for today and the future.”

“The legislation addresses several key factors in making health care more accessible and medical bills less surprising,” said Representative Randy Hunt (R-Sandwich). “Telehealth is here to stay and combined with expansion of practice responsibilities, more people in more places will receive quality medical care. I especially applaud mandatory coverage for PANS and PANDAS and my heart goes out to all of the families dealing with these devastating conditions.”

The bill’s components are highlighted below.

Telehealth

The bill makes telehealth permanently accessible to all in Massachusetts. From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these services experienced a dramatic expansion, enabling patients across the state to continue receiving vital medical care through videoconference or phone without risking exposure to the coronavirus. The bill requires insurance carriers, including MassHealth, to cover telehealth services in any case where the same in-person service would be covered, and the use of telehealth is appropriate. This coverage mandate will give providers certainty and allow them to make investments that will expand geographic access, reduce delays in care, and improve both pre- and post-care treatment.

Under the bill, behavioral health treatment delivered via telehealth will be permanently reimbursed by insurers at the same rate as in-person services. A similar reimbursement structure will also be implemented for primary care and chronic disease management services delivered via telehealth for two years. All other telehealth care services will be reimbursed at the same rate as in-person services for the duration of the COVID-19 state of emergency, and 90 days after its expiration. Equalizing telehealth and in-person payment rates as the state emerges from the pandemic is critical to offering safe care options for patients, incentivizing continued expansion of services, and providing a financial lifeline for hospitals, doctors and community health centers that have shifted largely to telehealth services.

Since expanded use of telehealth has and will continue to affect the Commonwealth’s health care system in a variety of ways, the bill also includes an analysis of telehealth coverage and payment to inform future policy decisions.

Expanding Patient Access

Building on additional lessons learned during the pandemic, An Act promoting a resilient health care system that puts patients first authorizes several health care professionals to practice at the top of their license and training while reducing barriers to care and maintaining patient safety. The bill enables nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists and psychiatric nurse mental health specialists to practice independently, provided that they meet certain education and training standards, and practice under physician supervision for at least two years. These standards are consistent with a March 10, 2020 Executive Order that expanded this same practice authority to advanced-practice registered nurses during the COVID-19 emergency.

In addition, the bill allows Massachusetts optometrists to treat glaucoma and recognizes pharmacists as health care providers, enabling them to integrate more fully into coordinated care teams and work with patients to review medications to ensure medication adherence and identify areas for care improvement.

COVID-19 Testing and Treatment

As the pandemic continues, it is crucial to ensure that COVID-19 testing and treatment services are as widely accessible as possible. To that end, this bill ensures that critical services related to treatment of COVID-19 would be covered by insurance carriers, including MassHealth, at no cost to consumers. These services include COVID-19-related emergency, inpatient and cognitive rehabilitation services, including all professional, diagnostic and laboratory services at both in-network and out-of-network providers. This bill also requires coverage for medically necessary outpatient COVID-19 testing, including testing for asymptomatic individuals, under circumstances to be defined by guidelines established by the Secretary of Health and Human Services within 30 days of the effective date of this bill.

Surprise Billing

The bill increases protections for patients against the unfair practice of surprise medical billing. In the short term, the bill immediately institutes requirements for health care providers and insurance carriers to notify patients of a health care provider’s network status before a non-emergency procedure occurs. The patient can thereby avoid a surprise medical bill and make an informed decision about where to seek care. In the long term, this bill tasks the Secretary of Health and Human Services—in consultation with the Health Policy Commission, the Center for Health Information and Analysis and the Division of Insurance—to develop a report by September 1, 2021 that makes recommendations on establishing a fair and sustainable out-of-network rate to resolve the costs of uncovered care.

Improving Future Care

To understand the ongoing effects of COVID-19 on health care accessibility, quality and fiscal sustainability and the implications of those effects on long-term policy considerations, the bill directs the Health Policy Commission and the Center for Health Information and Analysis to analyze and report on the state of the Commonwealth’s health care delivery system amid COVID-19. 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.

Other notable reforms in An Act promoting a resilient health care system that puts patients first include:

  • Requiring insurance carriers to cover pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections (PANDAS) and pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndromes (PANS) and establishing a PANDAS/PANS Advisory Council within the Department of Public Health;
  • Providing assistance by authorizing enhanced monthly Medicaid payments for certain community hospitals for two years to help mitigate the unprecedented financial challenges community hospitals continue to face during the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Eliminating a barrier to participation in cancer clinical trials by allowing reimbursement for a cancer patient’s reasonable travel and accommodation expenses associated with participating in a cancer clinical trial;
  • Eliminating a barrier to access urgent care services for low-income residents by ending the requirement that MassHealth patients first obtain a referral from a primary care provider before seeking care at an urgent care facility, while also ensuring that urgent care facilities and MassHealth assist patients with the process of designating a primary care provider;
  • Establishing a Rare Disease Advisory Council to advise the Governor, the Legislature and the Department of Public Health on the incidence of rare disease in the Commonwealth and the status of the rare disease community; and
  • Ensuring that a registered nurse with demonstrated expertise in the development and utilization of innovative treatments for patient care is a member of the Health Policy Commission’s board.

editor

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