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Expanding telemedicine will improve access to health care

Access to health services is one challenge families in the Upper Peninsula are all too familiar with. Even in normal times, providers in rural communities are few and far between — and if you need to see a specialist, you’re likely in for an hours-long drive.

The problem has grown even worse in the COVID-19 era. Many patients are unable to access routine and preventative health care under the governor’s executive order, and others who are high-risk do not want to leave their homes.

I believe telemedicine is part of the solution. Allowing more patients to access care online will remove barriers such as distance, lack of reliable transportation and waiting rooms full of other patients who could be contagious.

I recently helped the Michigan House approve a plan that will improve access to telehealth services for families and seniors in the Upper Peninsula and all throughout our state.

Right now, there are several barriers that prevent people — especially those with Medicaid coverage — from utilizing telehealth services. For example, Medicaid will only cover telemedicine visits if the patient travels to a secondary location to participate, such as a county health clinic, hospital or physician’s office. The bipartisan solution approved by the House this week would allow Medicaid to pay for telemedicine visits when a patient is at home or school.

Additionally, our plan will allow Medicaid patients to be reimbursed for remote patient monitoring systems. These monitoring devices gather vital signs from patients — like blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate and oxygen levels — and transmit them remotely to the doctor for assessment.

Current law also requires telemedicine visits between patients and health care providers to be done in real time. Our plan would allow patient data in the form of video, audio and images to be stored and forwarded to providers. This change will give doctors the time and flexibility to thoroughly analyze data and test results and respond to patients at a later time.

These types of changes are incredibly important to rural communities like ours, where access to physical and mental health services are limited. Improving telehealth in Michigan will allow more people to receive medical care that is practical, safe and convenient without having to travel long distances or expose themselves to others who may be contagious.

I was proud to support the measures in the House, and I am hopeful they will move quickly through the Senate in the coming weeks.

State Rep. Greg Markkanen of Hancock is serving his first term in the Michigan House representing residents of Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton, Iron, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties, as well as Powell and Ishpeming townships in Marquette County.

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