Governor says tough time calls for telemedicine


The COVID-19 pandemic has required us to rethink how we do things in our personal lives from education to our business, and how we entertain ourselves. The same is true in government. We have suspended a number of regulatory hurdles in order to navigate this uncharted territory. Today I’d like to discuss the steps we have taken to expand telemedicine.

Telemedicine is especially important at a time such as this when we are dealing with a fast-moving virus that threatens a large part of our population. Telemedicine allows a sick person to communicate with a doctor without having to go to an office and put other patients and health care workers at risk of infection.

Telemedicine is not new in Arkansas. Since 2017, patients have been able to consult with doctors and counselors about certain issues using various internet and telephonic technology. But that access was limited. Under the law, a doctor or counselor could not accept and consult with a first-time patient by telephone.

As we realized how easily the coronavirus spreads and that the number of cases likely would increase rapidly, we knew we needed to temporarily allow health care providers more ways to treat patients. So based on the wisdom and counsel of doctors and other leaders in health care, I issued an executive order suspending the provisions of the Telemedicine Act that require an in-person encounter or a face-to-face examination using real time audio and visual means to establish a professional relationship.

In other words, now a doctor can establish a new patient in his practice over the telephone. This will minimize the number of people in waiting rooms, which, of course, will minimize the spread of the coronavirus as well as flu and other contagious diseases.

The other significant element of the order is that it allows reimbursement to health care providers who take advantage of this provision. This is especially important for rural clinics that depend on income from patient visits. The reimbursement provision prevents economic harm to the doctors.

The order also suspended the Rules and Regulations of the Arkansas Board of Examiners in Counseling to allow licensed counselors to treat their clients by telephone.

Word of the order is still making its way to the insurance companies. We’ve heard reports that some companies have denied payment, but in cases where that has happened, it’s because the memo hasn’t worked its way down to the agents who work directly with customers. Leaders in the insurance industry generally have embraced this temporary solution. They know that we are in a crisis and that this short-term benefit will shorten the duration of this pandemic.

Whether we are facing a natural disaster or a medical crisis, Arkansans always run to the fight with courage and creativity. COVID-19 has upended life for many and forced us to change the way we do things, at least in the short term. The leaders in health care and all the personnel on the front lines are fighting this pandemic around the clock, which is why I am confident we are going to get through this as we always do.


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