Utah lawmaker sponsoring bills to support healthcare access for people with disabilities and workforce in upcoming session

Utah Rep. Norm Thurston (R – Provo) recently shared his outlook on the upcoming legislative session with State of Reform, saying his top health policy priorities are sufficiently funding services for people with disabilities and ensuring an adequate supply of mental and physical health professionals across the spectrum of care. 

 

 

Thurston is optimistic about making progress on healthcare during this year’s session—which begins on Jan. 17th—because of Utah’s non-partisan approach to the matter. 

One of the ways he anticipates the legislature could support the healthcare workforce would be to reduce the burden on physicians who practice telehealth or practice medicine outside of Utah. House Bill 159, which Thurston prefiled ahead of the 2023 session, would allow professionals who hold a healthcare license from a different state to provide telehealth services to Utahns under certain circumstances.

“With the rapid uptick in the use of telehealth, we’ve got ourselves into a bad spot because [with] telehealth providers, you have to be licensed in the location where the patient is located,” Thurston said. “And so if you want to be able to provide access to a patient, regardless of where they happen to be at any point in time because they may be on vacation, they may be assigned to another state for work temporarily, you’d have to have up to 56 licenses, if you include the territories to treat that patient.

What this [bill] will say is, ‘I can’t control what other states are doing, but as far as Utah is concerned, if the telehealth provider is licensed where the telehealth provider is located, assuming that that is their home base most of the time, then that is good enough for us.’ That should dramatically increase access to telehealth providers and decrease the burden and costs of telehealth as well so I am hoping that is what we accomplish with that.”

The bill also specifies that professionals can provide telehealth services in Utah under one license, but still must be compliant with Utah-specific laws, regardless of which state the license was granted in.

Thurston also envisions reforms that decrease the regulatory burden to make it easier for people who want to train into mental health professions to get the competencies that they need to be able to treat people. This includes shortening the time periods for training and making more mental health services available with quicker turnaround. 

Thurston said he has been part of the larger national policy discussion that addresses immigration and credentialing regulations for international medical graduates and healthcare professionals. 

In the short term, he said the legislature is working on legislation that could remove barriers for foreigners who have training and competencies in the area of physician skills, as well as other healthcare professions. He hopes the policy would allow immigrants the legal status to treat patients and address healthcare shortages in Utah. 

Thurston will sponsor two intergenerational poverty bills, refiled as amendments to the Education Savings Incentive Program from last session, that provide financial incentives to parents of children who are in intergenerational poverty situations to save up for their child’s higher education through the state’s tax credits and other financial incentives. 

One of the amendments Thurston is developing would utilize Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding to provide grants to individual counties to deliver those financial incentives in a coordinated, targeted way to those living in poverty within their jurisdiction. Thurston hopes to secure funding for the proposed broad-based pilot program that would allow counties to address the disjointed nature of public assistance, remove roadblocks to upward economic mobility for families, and assemble the needed services. 

Ensuring Medicaid services are available for people with disabilities is another area that Thurston is focused on this session. With Medicaid redeterminations set to begin in April, the Department of Health and Human Services has been making preparations to ensure the number of Medicaid-enrolled who stand to lose coverage during redeterminations have other options. Thurston said he would like to allocate more state support for families who have a relative with disabilities and the services that they need. 

“Part of the problem is that because of the Public Health Emergency, our Medicaid program has just dramatically ballooned,” Thurston said. “The number of people enrolled [and] the cost of the program [are] huge compared to what would have been without the Public Health Emergency. And so we are concerned that during the wind down, that program may not go back down to pre-pandemic levels. There may have been a de facto expansion of enrollment and benefits that we’re going to have to figure out how to afford in the long-term once federal subsidies go away.”