SPRINGFIELD — A pair of health care bills expanding telehealth resources during the COVID-19 pandemic passed the Illinois House of Representatives on Saturday – with one passing the Senate and the other not being taken up as lawmakers wrapped up their emergency special session.
Senate Bills 671 and 1864 cleared the House unanimously on Saturday evening, 112-0 and 113-0, respectively. SB 1864 then passed the Senate, 50-3, with a trio of Republicans in dissent. SB 671 did not come up for a Senate vote before lawmakers adjourned.
The initiatives respond to health care needs brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, chiefly the increased need for affordable and accessible telehealth services as social distancing guidelines and other restrictions have kept people in their homes.
SB 671 extends an executive order issued in March by Gov. J.B. Pritzker requiring public and private insurers to cover in-network telehealth services as if they had happened in a doctor’s office. That order also restricts the fees that insurers can charge for telehealth.
The bill extends the order’s provisions until the end of the year.
In floor debate Saturday afternoon, Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, argued SB 671 should include language giving a patient the option to be seen in person, such as in an emergency room, if he or she feels it is medically necessary.
House sponsor Rep. Deb Conroy, D-Villa Park, said that in Phase 3 of Illinois’ reopening plan —expected to take effect May 29 — many doctor’s offices are likely to reopen to in-person care.
An earlier version of SB 1864 had similar language until lawmakers removed it Saturday evening that would have required health insurers to cover the costs of all in-network telehealth services during the pandemic. Those services would also have been exempt in most cases from cost-sharing measures like copayments or deductibles.
That provision was opposed by insurance and anti-abortion interests.
Additional language also removed would have qualified “substance use disorder professionals and clinicians” as health care professionals under state’s Telehealth Act during COVID-19.
The version of SB 1864 headed to Pritzker’s desk, however, loosens certain regulations for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, the state’s Medicaid agency, during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
That includes making it easier for people to prove eligibility for the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the similar state program, All Kids. It also allows applicants to submit applications over the phone in lieu of a physical signature.
SB 1864 also calls for two state agencies to study how state government can help people who lack health insurance.
The bill instructs the Illinois Department of Insurance and IDHFS to study how “to make health insurance more affordable for low-income and middle-income residents.” The bill cites that 835,000 Illinoisans are uninsured.
The departments would have to submit their findings — which would also collect data on the geography, race and ethnicity of the uninsured — by the end of February 2021. The report would inform Pritzker and the Legislature of the “design, costs, benefits and implementation” of possible state options.
The bill also establishes a state task force on kidney disease prevention that would “develop a plan to raise awareness about early detection, promote health equity and reduce the burden of kidney disease through the state” by the end of next year.
The three Senate Republicans who opposed SB 1864 were Sens. Chuck Weaver of Peoria, Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods and Sue Rezin of Morris.
In April, Pritzker issued an executive order establishing a patient monitoring system for people with COVID-19 symptoms or who may have been exposed to the disease. People who are sick but do not need to go to the hospital can have daily virtual visits with health workers. Those patients are also entitled to “wellness kits” with medical supplies.
The Illinois Department of Human Services also launched a free mental health hotline, Call4Calm. By texting “TALK” or “HABLAR” to 55202, people will receive a call from a community mental health counselor.