The Illinois Senate ignored a bill last week that could have a wide impact on health-care delivery. Senate Bill 452 would amend the Illinois Insurance Act to require insurance contracts to cover telehealth services. What are telehealth services? To quote the bill:

“Telehealth services means the delivery of covered health-care services by way of an interactive telecommunications
system.”

Why is this an important advance in health-care service? What if you are:

 a person who has difficulty getting around due to age, illness, or injury.

 a person with severe anxiety or depression that makes it emotionally difficult to go to the office of a therapist or psychiatrist.

 a mom or dad with no car, taking care of a sick child

 a person who lives in an area of Illinois that is not served by as many health-care providers as Cook and the collar counties.

The bill does not require insurance companies to cover any service they do not cover now. It says they cannot require “in-person contact between a health-care provider and a patient.” Health-care providers could meet with a patient via online video (think Skype, but with a secure connection). 

Telehealth medical care is not new. Some hospitals use video links to connect doctors and patients. In other states, online services are becoming available that would allow a doctor to do this from his or her office with the patient at home.  

Mental health care from a distance dates back to Sigmund Freud who treated patients by mail. Many mental health counselors have held counseling sessions by phone. Colleges have used email or online chat to help students for two decades. 

The military has pioneered the use of computer simulations in the treatment of PTSD. The patient, represented by an avatar, interacts with a virtual environment similar to the situation that caused the PTSD. This promising technology will never be available to the general public without insurance coverage. 

Every mental health professional is taught to “meet the client where they are.” I believe that there are more people who would seek help if it were nearby. Online is nearby to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection and a webcam. The roadblock is that, in Illinois, they would have to pay out-of-pocket. 

Insurance companies will not pay for telehealth services until the Illinois Legislature tells them they have to. Twenty-two states have done that. It is time for the Illinois Legislature to step up.

SB452 was sponsored by state Senator Terry Link (District 30, Lake County). Oak Park’s state senator is Don Harmon. If you know someone who would benefit from telehealth services, please let these senators know. Until legislators hear interest from the public, they will bend to the will of insurance companies.

Charles Hughes is longtime resident of Oak Park who practices counseling in-office and online. He is a board member of the Illinois Mental Health Counselors Association and writes about mental health and technology.

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