State Rep. Lowell Russell, R-Vonore, is working with other members of the Tennessee House of Representatives to make telemedicine a permanent fixture in state health care.

Lowell cosponsored House Bill 1699 with state Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixon, that protects existing telehealth arrangements that don’t require an existing doctor-patient relationship.

The bill creates a structure for providers to use telehealth with established patients who have been in their practice the past 18 months for follow-up care at home, place of work or other mobiles sites as long as the provider has access to the relevant public record.

The bill passed 88-0 on March 19 in the House. A vote could not be reached on the Senate side in time. Russell said the only way it would be brought back up again this year is if a special session is held or if Gov. Bill Lee issues an executive order.

“Of course, with the pandemic of COVID-19 that brought the necessity of it more to the up front, and so we’re hoping that eventually the House and Senate can come together to keep it going without an executive order,” Russell said.

The bill creates an avenue to increase electronic delivery or care through telemedicine.

“We passed it back in March and with COVID-19 it just brought this to the forefront of how important it is and how convenient it is, how much it works,” Russell said. “Ever since I started I’ve had a lot of the physicians assistants, doctors and nurse practitioners reach out to me and want to continue it.”

Russell believes the legislation could assist many Tennesseans who can’t visit a doctor’s office and would serve as a “key part” of a larger plan to reform Tennessee health care.

“As chairman of the House Insurance Committee and sponsor of this legislation, I believe this conservative solution to health care delivery in Tennessee will provide an extraordinary benefit to our citizens, whether in response to this virus pandemic or by meeting the needs of Tennessee patients in their homes or place of work,” Smith said in a release. “It is an honor to partner with Speaker (Cameron) Sexton and Rep. Russell to utilize innovation and increase access to quality health services for more of our citizens through telemedicine.”

The bill includes a provision for payment parity among doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. The measure, preceding emergency actions of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to prioritize telemedicine and its reimbursement during the pandemic, uses existing technology in care of residents.

“The electronic delivery of specialized care through telemedicine is critical to improving patient safety because it will drastically reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 exposure in the weeks and months ahead,” Cameron Sexton, state House speaker, R-Crossville, said in a release. “This innovative concept will also untangle our current monopolistic approach to health care in Tennessee by increasing access to resources — especially in our rural communities — so we can better serve citizens.”

Russell plans to bring the bill back up for consideration next year.

“It’s pretty important for all of us, and it’s a pretty important piece of legislation if you think about the people that has difficult times traveling back and forth to the doctor, somebody can do the same thing on the phone,” he said.