The Bulletin Board

Senate committee supports faster access to telehealth treatment for substance use disorder

By: - October 26, 2021 12:35 pm
State House dome

The legislation will head next to the full Legislature once it reconvenes in January. (Dave Cummings | New Hampshire Bulletin)

One of the governor’s pandemic emergency orders allowed those with substance use disorder to get a prescription for medication-assisted treatment quickly via telehealth, without first waiting days or weeks to meet with a medical provider. It connected users with treatment the moment they decided to seek it, key advocates say, to success.

When the emergency order ended in June, so did that immediate access. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted, 4-0, Tuesday to make it permanent. The legislation will head next to the full Legislature once it reconvenes in January.

“Many patients who do not have access to reliable transportation or have a fixed work schedule struggle to attend in-person medical appointments,” Jake Berry, vice president of policy at New Futures, told the committee. “And many understaffed providers are forced to schedule appointments days or weeks into the future, often missing the short but critical window in which individuals are ready to engage meaningfully in substance use treatment. 

Existing telehealth laws exempt initial in-person visits in limited cases: if the practitioner is affiliated with a veterans hospital or the person is already in the care of someone while in a community mental health center; prison or jail; a hospital; or the Doorway, the state’s substance use treatment hub.

The legislation, introduced by Sen. Tom Sherman, a Rye Democrat, would remove those restrictions. It also would allow providers to bill Medicaid without having an in-person visit first.

Dr. David de Gijsel, chief medical officer of Better Life Partners, which provides medication-assisted treatment and counseling around the state, told the committee they saw improved access during the 14 months the emergency order was in place, and since then a drop in the number of clients succeeding and staying compliant with care. 

During those 14 months, 96 percent of clients were attending their medical evaluation; since the order expired, that has dropped to 75 percent, according to the company. And wait times have increased from under an hour to nearly a day. Nearly 20 percent are waiting up to two days and 14 percent are waiting up to four.

“We lose 25 out of 100 people who have the willingness and are ready to change because we are not there to meet them,” he said. 

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.