Lawmakers send police reform, abortion measures to governor

Health bill, including new telehealth rules, emerges from conference committee


THE LEGISLATURE sent bills dealing with police reform and abortion back to Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday and began work on compromise health care legislation that requires insurers to permanently reimburse for behavioral telehealth at the rates they’d pay for the same care in-person.

The House joined the Senate in passing police reform legislation that includes amendments sought by Baker on police training and the use of facial recognition software. Baker, who had threatened a veto if the Legislature declined to compromise on those two issues, has indicated he will sign the bill containing the modified language into law.

On abortion, however, both branches rejected amendments sought by the governor and sent the bill back to him as originally drafted. Baker can sign the abortion measure into law, allow it to become law without his signature, or veto the bill and challenge the Legislature to override him. An override would require a two-thirds vote, which was the margin on earlier abortion votes in the House but just barely.

Baker has repeatedly refused to say what he will do on abortion and did so again on Tuesday. In a letter to lawmakers seeking approval of his amendments, Baker said he could support provisions allowing abortions after 24 weeks in cases of “lethal fetal anomaly,” but “cannot support the other ways that this section expands the availability of late-term abortions and permits minors age 16 and 17 to get an abortion without the consent of a parent or guardian.”

The health care legislation emerged from a conference committee after months of negotiations behind closed doors and is scheduled to go to the Senate on Wednesday. The lead negotiators, Sen. Cindy Friedman of Arlington and House Majority Leader Ron Mariano of Quincy, unveiled the bill at 5 p.m.

A key focus of the bill is telehealth, which exploded in popularity early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when in-person health care services were restricted and many people avoided trips outside of the home.

The two branches took different approaches on payment parity between telehealth visits and in-person services. The Senate bill sought to require reimbursement rates for telehealth to match in-person rates for two years. The House bill proposed permanent coverage at in-person rates for behavioral telehealth services, while primary care and chronic disease management telehealth visits would be covered at in-person rates for one year.

Under the conference committee’s bill (S 2984), insurers would need to permanently reimburse behavioral telehealth services at the same rate as in-person. For two years after the bill takes effect, they would also need to reimburse telehealth-delivered primary care and chronic disease management services at the same rate as in-person care.

An executive order mandated equal payment rates for telehealth and in-person services during the COVID-19 state of emergency declared on March 10, and the bill would keep those rates in place for 90 days after the state of emergency ends.

To ensure consumer access to telehealth, the bill would require insurers, including MassHealth, to cover telehealth in any case where they’d cover the same in-person service and where telehealth is appropriate, according to the committee.

“Because the lack of certainty around insurance coverage has inhibited wider utilization of and investment in telehealth services by providers, this bill gives providers the assurance they need to make the investments that will expand geographic access, reduce delays in care and improve both pre- and post-care treatment,” the committee said in its summary of the bill.

In the area of workforce reforms, the bill enables nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists and psychiatric nurse mental health clinical specialists to practice independently as long as they meet education and training standards and practice under physician supervision for at least two years. The bill also allows Massachusetts optometrists to treat glaucoma.

The Massachusetts Association of Nurse Anesthetists said the bill allows flexibility for certified registered nurse anethesists to care for patients pre- and post-procedure. Its lifting of supervision requirements for advanced practice registered nurses is along the same lines of an executive order that allowed APRNs to move into critical care and other roles during the first wave of the pandemic, the association said.

“This bill cuts through some of the red tape that can cost our patients precious time and money,” association president Elaine Sullivan said. “It is an important step forward in advancing patient safety and providing access to skilled anesthesia care.”

To address fiscal challenges at community hospitals, the bill authorizes two years of enhanced monthly Medicaid payments at such facilities that serve a high percentage of low-income patients and meet other financial eligibility criteria.

Meet the Author

Katie Lannan

State House News Service
In the area of COVID-19 testing and treatment, the bill requires insurance carriers, including MassHealth, to cover, without any out-of-pocket costs to patients, all 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, according to a bill summary. It also requires coverage for medically necessary outpatient COVID-19 testing, including testing for asymptomatic individuals under circumstances to be defined by guidelines established by state officials within 30 days of the effective date of the bill.

The bill eliminates the requirement that MassHealth patients obtain a referral from their primary care provider before seeking treatment at an urgent care facility, and requires urgent care facilities to notify MassHealth when a MassHealth patient receives urgent care services in order to improve care coordination.