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More on the Texas telemedicine lawsuit

Texas Monthly has a nice overview.

Imagine you’re sick, or you think you might be sick, and you want to talk to a doctor. Instead of waiting a week or two to see your primary care physician, you just open an app on your phone or computer and within minutes you’re video-chatting with a doctor or nurse. Maybe you even have a medical device, like a blood pressure monitor, that connects your computer and transmits images and data to your doctor in real time while you’re talking.

That’s not science fiction. It’s called telemedicine, an $18 billion worldwide industry and one of the fastest-growing sectors in health care. In many ways, telemedicine represents the future of health care, promising to do for medicine what Uber and Lyft have done for transportation. Across the country, the use of telemedicine is expanding as consumers realize how much more convenient it is to talk to a doctor when and where they choose. It’s also a lot cheaper. The average telemedicine visit costs between $40 and $50, compared to the average in-person doctor’s visit, which is about $100 more—not counting the cost of the time and effort it takes to travel to and from a brick-and-mortar doctor’s office.

But here in Texas, where we have an infamous shortage of doctors and nurses, telemedicine has hit a snag. New rules promulgated by the Texas Medical Board last year prompted Dallas-based Teladoc, the largest telemedicine firm in the country, to file a federal antitrust lawsuit against the board. Specifically, the medical board’s new rules (PDF), approved in April 2015 but blocked by a federal judge’s preliminary injunction just days before they were set to take effect, stipulate how physicians in Texas can establish a “doctor-patient relationship” with new patients before engaging in telemedicine. A patient must either visit the doctor in person or meet “face-to-face” over video conference. But the video conference must be at an approved medical site like a hospital, clinic, or a fire station, and there must be a “patient site presenter” on hand, like a nurse or a physician’s assistant. In other words, you can’t just turn on your computer at home, login to a telemedicine app and be connected with a doctor. Put another way, in Texas you have to go to a medical clinic to be seen by a doctor, even if the doctor isn’t there.

This presents a substantial obstacle for Texans who are interested in using telemedicine. Many people, especially younger folks, simply won’t go to a doctor’s office, either because they don’t have what doctors and policymakers call “a medical home,” or because they don’t have health insurance.

So in Texas, which has the highest uninsured rate in the nation, on-demand telemedicine could be a game-changer. It holds the promise that, instead of forgoing medical care, more people might actually seek out a doctor when they’re sick.

All of this is why the antitrust lawsuit Teledoc filed has sparked so much debate—and confusion. Teladoc, which says Texas was already among the most restrictive states in the country for telemedicine, claims the new rules will hamstring telemedicine firms and limit patients’ access to healthcare. The medical board claims just the opposite. It views its new regulations as an expansion of telemedicine, not a restriction of it. Meanwhile, as the case wends its way through federal courts, a consortium of health care and tech groups is calling on the Texas Legislature to step in and settle the matter when lawmakers convene in Austin early next year.

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The Legislature seems at least somewhat aware that it needs to step in. Last session, both the Senate and House issued interim charges to study telemedicine and give recommendations about how to improve it. To date, most of these hearings have steered clear of the lawsuit and spent considerable time hearing testimony about how great telemedicine is in Texas. To be fair, Texas was one of the first states to invest in telemedicine technology in the 1990s, and since then has tried to encourage its use in rural areas where medical specialists are scarce. One pilot program, supported by state funds and run by the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, will equip ambulances in rural West Texas with technology that allows first responders to communicate with physicians at regional trauma centers on a secure internet connection and transmit patient data in real-time while en route to a trauma center or an emergency room.

Those are real advances, and will likely save some lives in rural communities. But the big gains from telemedicine will come from hundreds of thousands of consumers using the services for routine care—and doing so on their own initiative from their homes and offices. To make that possible in Texas, lawmakers might need to act. During the 2015 session, Representative Jodie Laubenberg filed several telemedicine bills, including one that would have prevented the medical board from issuing the rule requiring a face-to-face consultation if the physician had never seen the patient. The bill was introduced and referred to the House Public Health Committee, but after the board published its new rules in April and Teladoc sued, Laubenberg, pulled it. “If something’s going to court, we stand back,” she said—a line that’s since been repeated in interim hearings on telemedicine.

But Laubenberg, along with Teladoc and many other Texas-based healthcare firms, thinks the legislature should step in once the court case is settled. They think this is about something much larger than a single antitrust suit. “Over the last five to ten years, telemedicine changed from a promise to a reality,” says Gorevic. “Now we’re starting to see the benefits. Today it’s becoming part of the fabric of the healthcare delivery system.” Just how much a part of the fabric it becomes in Texas depends not only on the Fifth Circuit Court, but how well lawmakers can work with regulators once the dust settles. Right now, the tide seems to be turning in telemedicine’s favor. In September, Robinson, the medical board’s executive director since 2001, announced she’s leaving the board to direct the telemedicine program at University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

For lawmakers like Laubenberg, the issue is about something yet greater than healthcare: the degree to which regulatory boards should make up rules for their industries. “I’ve never been a big fan of agency rulemaking. They tend to go rogue,” she said. “I think the medical board thought they could get ahead of it, but the issue’s too big, and they couldn’t do it.”

See here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. It seems likely that Teladoc will prevail in court, though one never knows for sure, and it won’t surprise me if the Lege decides to step in and attempt to settle the matter themselves. There is of course an irony in Jodie Laubenberg being so involved with this, since the omnibus anti-abortion HB2 from 2013 prohibits dispensing abortion-inducing drugs (mifepristone-misoprostol regimen) by anyone other than a physician and requires that the physician dispensing the drug first examine the pregnant woman, which is interpreted to mean “in person”, thus making HB2 itself a telemedicine ban. That provision wasn’t part of the lawsuit that led to much (but not all!) of HB2 being struck down, though it may well come later. Point being, Laubenberg considers regulating doctors to be her job, not the Medical Board’s. We’ll see who gets to make the next move, the Fifth Circuit or the Lege. Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond, opining in the Chron, has more.

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