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SPRINGFIELD – An initiative sponsored by state Sen. Andy Manar to make health care available to more rural children and families through telehealth became law this week.

The initiative allows health-care providers on both ends of a telehealth interaction to be reimbursed for costs involved in participating in the interaction.

manar andyThat means, for example, insurance can reimburse telehealth costs to both the rural hospital where a stroke patient has been taken for emergency care and to the highly skilled stroke specialist in another part of the state who is consulting with the patient and local medical team via computer and webcam.

“Children and families shouldn’t go without medical treatment or counseling – nor should they have to drive three hours for services they – need simply because of where they live,” said Manar, D-Bunker Hill. “We have other options today. Telemedicine is one of them.”

Telehealth capabilities also increase access to mental and behavioral health care, which is especially important in rural and high-poverty areas where unemployment, drug and alcohol dependency, food insecurity, housing and transportation shortages, domestic abuse, delayed education and other issues can converge.

However, a shortage of mental health professionals in Illinois, combined with the state’s notoriously low reimbursement rates for providers, has resulted in a crisis of care in areas where it’s most needed. Telemedicine can help fill the void, Manar said.

The lack of mental health care in rural Illinois and a strong desire for expanded telemedicine services were common themes during discussions on Manar’s tour of hospitals and federally qualified health clinics in his Senate district in November.

“This plan begins to solve a problem in central and southern Illinois by breaking down a significant barrier to mental health care, which is access,” Manar said. “By chipping away at some of Illinois’ outdated regulations, we can help families begin to get more of the help they need in a timely manner closer to home for a fraction of the cost.”

The measure, which was Senate Bill 3049, became law this week. It is an initiative of the Illinois Health and Hospital Association.

“We feel this legislation is a positive first step to improve telehealth coverage, strengthen access to provider networks, contribute to timely care in the most appropriate setting and help facilitate the integration of physical and behavioral health care into hospital and primary care settings,” said David Gross, senior vice president of government relations for the Illinois Health & Hospital Association. “This is why it received bipartisan support in the General Assembly.”