CALIFORNIA – On the first day of the California Legislative session in the new year, health care providers and advocacy groups join Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry in uplifting the significance of Assembly Bill (AB) 32. Introduced in December to highlight the pressing need to strengthen telehealth access during this legislative session, AB 32 seeks to make current telehealth flexibilities permanent under state law. Telehealth modalities, like phone and video calls, and remote enrollment in state health programs have been critical in providing health care during COVID-19, but are currently contingent upon federal and state public health emergency declarations.
“The expansion of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the few silver linings of this challenging time. It has transformed healthcare during our nation’s worst health crisis in a century, allowing patients to maintain timely access to care while also mitigating COVID-19 exposure,” said Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry. “Access to healthcare should not require a state of emergency, nor depend upon a person’s location, mobility, or income. It’s time for the State of California to recognize that access to health care is always important, and to make telehealth part of our health world whether or not we face a crisis.”
Policy changes outlined in AB 32 include: creating payment parity between Medi-Cal managed care plans and commercial plans and allowing virtual enrollment for limited scope Medi-Cal programs. Additionally, the intent of the bill is to continue the provision of telehealth in Medi-Cal programs, including video and audio-only technology, by making the telehealth flexibilities instituted during the public health emergency permanent.
Community health care providers and advocacy groups applaud the Assemblymember’s leadership on this critical issue, and call on the Legislature to prioritize passage of AB 32 to codify the telehealth advancements adopted in order to protect patient access during the pandemic into state law.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has revolutionized the way we deliver care,” said Carmela Castellano-Garcia, President and CEO for California Health+ Advocates. “Throughout this pandemic, telehealth has ensured greater equity for all persons regardless of their program of coverage by eliminating physical barriers to care. Communities of color as well as rural communities have been among the first to benefit from current telehealth flexibilities. We must move these lessons forward. Our state must maintain the current flexibilities in Medi-Cal, leaving no Californian behind, in the pursuit of health equity.”
“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing and sustaining access to care through telehealth has become more urgent than ever,” said Peter N. Bretan, Jr., M.D., California Medical Association President. “Telehealth has become an essential tool for physicians’ practices during this time because it allows them to provide safe and effective care, and it bridges access barriers by utilizing technology to better harness physician time and expertise, and connects patients to their care providers more quickly, efficiently and conveniently. Protecting the telehealth expansions that have emerged as a result of the pandemic is essential to both meeting our health care demands in this moment, and to ensuring that all Californians – regardless of their geography, income, or background - can receive access to quality care in the future.”
“Many patients prefer to connect with their providers via telehealth and that will still be true post pandemic,” said Erica Murray, President and CEO of the California Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems. “Public health care systems are thrilled that the Medi-Cal program has removed long-standing barriers to video and phone visits and urge the Legislature to ensure these policies stay in place.”
“Telehealth has emerged as a critical pathway for patients across the state to get time-sensitive sexual and reproductive health care during the pandemic,” said Julie Rabinovitz, President and CEO of Essential Access Health. “Although COVID-19 created an urgent need for telehealth adoption, barriers to obtaining in-person health services like transportation, child care, and time away from work are not new. California must take action to ensure that telehealth continues to be an affordable and viable access point for all Californians during the public health emergency and beyond.”
“During these uncertain times, one thing is true: telehealth has radically improved access to high-quality affordable health care, especially among rural communities and communities of color,” said Jodi Hicks, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. “Because of telehealth, safety-net providers, like Planned Parenthood, have been able to use technology and innovation to provide Californians with critical sexual and reproductive health care services by phone or video conferencing. In a time when we need more equitable access to care, not less, we thank Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry for introducing AB 32, so that where you live and what type of insurance you have don’t determine the type of care you’re able to access.”
Because of telehealth flexibilities, patients — no matter their background — can access the full spectrum of health care, including primary care, specialty services, sexual and reproductive health care services, dental care, behavioral health services and more. If passed, AB 32 will be a critical component of the telehealth policy infrastructure and would help pave the way for future health care innovation and advancement.