Top State House Democrats on Tuesday pitched their No. 1 legislative priority, a COVID-19 Patient Bill of Rights, that among other things would waive all copayments associated with testing and vaccinations.

The bill, co-sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, also would strengthen access to telehealth options – including allowing audio-only appointments – and would permit providers to fill most prescriptions for up to 180 days.

“This bill is about making sure nothing prevents Mainers from getting the health care they need … to protect them from this dangerous virus,” Fecteau said during a public hearing before the Legislature’s Committee on Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services. “We cannot have costs be a barrier to testing and vaccination.”

The bill, LD 1, was well-received. More than a dozen health care advocacy groups and representatives of major health care providers testified in support, including Maine Equal Justice, Consumers for Affordable Health Care, Maine Primary Care Association, the Maine Psychological Association, as well as Northern Light Health and MaineHealth, the state’s two largest health care providers.

No one spoke in opposition.

Lawmakers will discuss the bill further at a later date before voting to move it out of the insurance committee. After that, it will go to the House and Senate for additional votes.

One unknown at this point is how much the bill would add to the budget, but Democrats appear committed to its passage and they have strong majorities in both chambers, as well as the support of Gov. Janet Mills, whose office testified in support.

“Where you live and how much money you make should not determine whether you have access to the care you need. Health care is an essential right,” said Jackson, the Senate president.

Under the current state of emergency precipitated by the pandemic, most COVID-19 tests and vaccinations have been offered at no charge. But there are sometimes other associated costs that insurance carriers don’t always cover. This bill would ensure that those costs are covered by prohibiting carriers from imposing any co-payments even beyond any state of emergency.

While uninsured Mainers already should be able to access testing and vaccination at no cost, the proposal says an uninsured Mainer who goes to a testing site that does not have a contract with the state must be made aware of any costs ahead of time and told about alternative sites where they can get tested for free. It also would require that an uninsured Mainer be provided with a MaineCare waiver to get reimbursed if they choose to get tested at such a site.

One question raised by Katie Fullam Harris, government affairs officer for MaineHealth, was whether waiving costs for vaccines should be extended beyond the state of emergency. She said it makes sense now, but she pointed out that it might be prohibitive in the event a coronavirus vaccine becomes an annual event, which is possible.

LD 1 also has a provision to authorize delivery of health care services through telehealth by audio-only telephone, rather than video, and requires insurance carriers to bill those appointments the same way as in-person visits. Many older and rural Mainers don’t have access to high-speed internet that makes video appointments possible.

The bill also authorizes health care providers with prescriptive authority to fill prescriptions for up to 180 days during a state of emergency. Some providers already are doing this, but LD 1 would enshrine the option in law.

Thomas Cooper, president of the Maine Psychological Association, said his organization was most pleased about opening up telehealth options to audio-only.

“These changes benefit individuals in Maine and ensure that needed services are provided without interruption if an individual cannot access their provider in-person,” he said in his testimony.

Pamela Corcoran of Belfast, speaking as a board member of AARP Maine, said LD 1 will provide protection to vulnerable seniors.

“Older Mainers and their families have been particularly hard-hit by both the health and financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “From nursing home deaths and isolation; to seeking access to new technology to meet health care needs; to home care, utility and housing costs and food assistance, many Mainers 50 and older are finding it difficult to stay afloat.”

Corcoran also said one of her prescriptions is only eligible for a 30-day supply, which means she has to go out once a month to have it refilled.

“This proposed legislation would significantly reduce my risk of exposure when I make a trip to the pharmacy for refills. Additionally, the cost to mail my prescription with each refill is not workable within my budget,” she said.

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