The Time is Now for a Rational and Permissive State Telehealth Policy in Arkansas

The need for access to quality health care services in Arkansas cannot be disputed. As it now stands, Arkansas lags behind in terms of health care access and quality when compared to most other states. The Natural State also scores poorly in terms of health outcomes and in behavioral health, and all but one county fully or partially meets the federal government’s definition of an area designated as lacking the adequate number of health professionals to care for the population.

Telehealth, or the practice of delivering health care services remotely through the use of technology, is a proven means of providing high-quality health care services in an efficient and cost-effective manner. As the CEO of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), the only organization whose sole purpose is to advance telehealth across the country, I have witnessed first-hand the advantages that telehealth has to offer. By enabling practitioners to provide care for their patients using innovative technologies, telehealth allows providers and patients to communicate whenever and wherever it is most convenient for them. For example, patients experiencing symptoms of the flu or displaying signs of a rash do not have to leave their homes to receive medical advice; interacting with their physicians becomes as easy as picking up the phone.

Additionally, asynchronous telehealth technologies, such as HIPAA-compliant emails and text messages with a healthcare provider, do not require an excessive amount of bandwidth to function properly. Permitting the use of these modalities in the delivery of telehealth would allow the 530,000 Arkansans who lack access to high-speed internet connections to receive the same access to quality care as those in the state who enjoy access to more reliable broadband capabilities.

While other states long ago enacted forward-thinking telehealth laws, 2021 has seen many states, including Florida, Texas, and Missouri, revisit their telehealth policy and establish even more permissive legislative frameworks in which telehealth can flourish and contribute to the health of patients in their states.

The time is now for the Arkansas State Legislature to promote the expansion of telehealth in the state. In 2015, the Arkansas House of Representatives voted down a bill that would have permitted the practice of telehealth in the state, claiming the legislature needed to slow the process down before making any telehealth-related advancements. Two years later, the legislature took a small step in the right direction by permitting limited telehealth consultations in the state, but practitioners still could not meet with first-time patients via telephone to establish a physician-patient relationship, effectively precluding many of telehealth’s prospective benefits.

This placed Arkansas in a precarious position at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public health crisis that highlighted the urgent need to update Arkansas’ insufficient telehealth infrastructure. Governor Asa Hutchinson was forced to address this issue through executive order in March of 2020. The order suspended sections of the Arkansas Telehealth Act that required an in-person visit or face-to-face interaction through real-time audiovisual technologies before practitioners could provide telehealth services to their patients.

Had Arkansas lawmakers adopted a sensible telehealth policy before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Hutchinson would not have been forced to issue an executive order expanding the practice of telehealth in the state, and Arkansas’ health care industry would have been better equipped to handle the outbreak. Instead, Arkansas’ health system has been stretched to its capacity during the crisis.

Despite the clear and urgent need to provide adequate levels of care for its patients, lawmakers in Little Rock have long been reluctant to promote telehealth-friendly policies. As common-sense telehealth bills make their way through the legislature in 2021, several lawmakers have railed against the proposed legislation, disregarding the stability such laws would bring to the overburdened health care system and increased access to care that they would provide to Arkansas residents, especially those living in rural areas.

The legislature must not delay the expansion of the state’s telehealth infrastructure any longer. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented exceptional incentives for governors and legislatures across the country to adopt policies which promote the development of telehealth in their states. For Arkansas lawmakers to postpone further the establishment of a rational and permissive state telehealth policy would be to forego an unprecedented opportunity to provide their constituents with access to the affordable and high-quality health care they desperately need.

Ann Mond Johnson is the chief executive officer of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), working to transform health and care through enhanced, efficient delivery via telehealth.