BOSTON (6/25/2020) – State Senator Walter F. Timilty (D-Milton) joined his colleagues in the Massachusetts State Senate on Thursday to unanimously pass the Patients First Act. This act is the third piece of signature healthcare legislation advanced by the Senate 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.
“We have learned during this pandemic that health care can be effectively and efficiently delivered in many different ways. Telehealth is one such way that allows medical services to be provided virtually, therefore reducing both the patient and the provider’s potential exposure to COVID-19 and other contagious diseases. Telehealth has been proven to work and this bill ensures that it will be a service that continues for patient access long after the Covid-19 crisis,” said Timilty.
“Moreover, this bill focuses on eliminating surprise billing. All too often, a patient might go in for a procedure at an approved hospital with an approved surgeon but perhaps there’s another expert present that is not covered by the patient’s insurance. This is an important measure to help control costs for the patient,” said Timilty.
“In the State Senate, we have a strong commitment to making health care more affordable and accessible. This bill adds to that goal,” Timilty added.
Additionally, Timilty filed an amendment to this bill that was passed unanimously.
“I filed an amendment to add clarifying language to Senate Bill 2769, ensuring that emergency ambulance services are exempt from any rate setting language. Emergency ambulance service is a critical and differentiated resource controlled by our cities and towns. Each community establishes or approves EMS rates that reflect the uniqueness of their geography, payer mix and population,” said Timilty.
“Removing this local control could severely cut rates which could in turn increase response times and have significant negative impact on local municipal budgets. This amendment does not impact non-emergent trips such as patient transfers in which a patient could end up in an ambulance and not know that the ambulance is out of network with their plan. Emergencies are very different. EMS is required to respond and transport patients regardless of insurance coverage,” he said.
“When the health and safety of your loved one or even yourself is at risk, it is critical that EMS be able to respond immediately. A few minutes could make the difference between life and death. We should never put lives at risk because of inaccurate reimbursement rates,” said Timilty.
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 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.