BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed the Patients First Act, the third piece of healthcare legislation advanced by the body to increase access to healthcare, protect patients, and enhance quality care. The legislation, championed by state Sen. Cindy Friedman, builds on 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.
“It is vital that we deliver accessible and equitable healthcare to people across the Commonwealth,” state Sen. Eric Lesser said. “The coronavirus pandemic has revealed inequities and inadequacies in our current healthcare system, and it is important that we continue to legislate comprehensive healthcare reforms to protect patients and providers in the face of these unprecedented challenges.”
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 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.
The bill also eliminates ‘surprise billing,’ the practice of charging patients who are unaware they received healthcare 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.
The bill also expands the scope of practice for several healthcare professionals, increasing patient access to critical care. It 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.
In addition, the legislation, recognizes pharmacists as healthcare providers, enabling them to integrate more fully into coordinated care teams, and 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.
The Patients First Act now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.