This week, the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services met to discuss a variety of policy issues, including telemedicine. Defined as “delivering health care at a distance,” telemedicine has proven to expedite access to health care for many, especially for people who reside in rural areas where health care providers are in short supply.

In efforts to expand telemedicine’s reach, North Carolina lawmakers requested that the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) produce a report that assesses the telemedicine landscape in North Carolina and offers policy recommendations. That report was submitted to the legislature on October 1, and its findings were presented on November 14 by Maggie Sauer, Director of the Office of Rural Health at DHHS.  (You can access the full report here.)

One policy consideration that captured the attention of some committee members is whether North Carolina should pass a “telemedicine parity law.”  A telemedicine parity law would force private insurance companies to pay for telemedicine services. In the DHHS report, there is no definitive policy recommendation on this issue. In fact, the report specifically asks for the N.C. Department of Insurance to weigh in with its own comments.

Private insurers certainly won’t be enthusiastic about another law that further erases their authority in designing health plans. Enacting telemedicine parity only adds to the pile of health benefit mandates insurers must include in their small group and individual consumer policies.

Proponents, however, will argue that this legislation shouldn’t be interpreted as such. Telemedicine parity laws don’t require insurers to incorporate morehealth services. They only request that insurers reimburse providers when using telemedicine to treat patients for services that are otherwisecovered during an in-office visit.

Nathaniel Lacktman, health care lawyer and telemedicine parity law guru, explains:

“The laws do not mandate the health plan provide entirely new service lines or specialties. The scope of services in the plan’s member benefit package remains unchanged. The only difference is that the patient can elect to see his or her doctor via telehealth rather than driving to the doctor’s waiting room.”

When presented in this manner, telemedicine parity laws seem harmless. But after examining surrounding states’ parity laws, it’s important for legislators to be fully informed and mindful of their unintended consequences.

Read more from the latest Health Care Update here.