Expect state lawmakers to focus again on health-care and telehealth bills amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Georgia when the General Assembly meets next month to kick off the 2021 legislative session, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan told health-care and technology administrators Tuesday.
Duncan, who led a task force on health-care access and costs in 2019, gave few details on any upcoming legislation other than possible measures to curb unnecessary emergency-room visits and “ways to create opportunities for better delivery” of Affordable Care Act-related services.
Panelists at a health care-focused summit in Rome Tuesday – including two top Georgia Senate members who also work in health care – signaled they would like to see Georgia expand its use of telehealth services that have been critical to providing primary care during the pandemic.
“I don’t think we’re just creating patterns and health habits around [COVID-19],” Duncan said. “I think long-term, we’re going to watch digital health play out [and] telehealth play out in a more formidable format.”
Georgia opened up more telehealth options in 2019 with passage of a bill sponsored by state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, which set legal definitions for telehealth services and required insurers to cover care provided via real-time, remote means.
Health-care providers have leaned more on video chats and other telehealth options to continue treating patients in the nearly nine months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Georgia, forcing new distancing habits and the need for greater care to limit viral exposure in hospital settings.
Telehealth has been a boon for hospitals and health-care providers who have needed tighter coordination between themselves and their patients at a time when close contact is challenging, said Sherrie Williams, chief operating officer for Waycross-based nonprofit Global Partnership for Telehealth.
“If anything good came out of the pandemic … it’s the collaborative piece,” Williams said Tuesday. “And telehealth has really made it an easy thing to do.”
Many providers are now eyeing telehealth and telemedicine services as essential for hospitals and health-care organizations to continue treating patients, said Dr. Kenneth Jones, chief medical officer at Floyd Medical Center.
“That’s probably a lot of the future of medicine is the ability to access your physician and get care provided in a quick, prompt way,” Jones said Tuesday. “I think it’s going to change how we provide health care of the next five to ten years.”
Health-care and insurance-related legislation was a top priority for state Senate leaders during this year’s session, which saw passage and signing of several bills to curb unexpectedly high “surprise” hospital costs, tamp down runaway prescription-drug prices and boost insurer transparency.
State Sens. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, who is an anesthetist, and hospital administrator Dr. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, both of whom brought bills on those subjects as well as co-sponsored Unterman’s 2019 bill on telehealth, said the pandemic has highlighted ongoing health-care issues like insufficient broadband internet in rural parts of the state that the legislature still needs to tackle.
“We have a lot of tools available that we haven’t had before, but they’re unfortunately not all available,” Burke said. “I think the pandemic has given us a lot of transparency on what we have been able to do well and also what some of our deficiencies are.”
The 2021 legislative session kicks off Jan. 11 at the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta.