In today's digital age, seeing a doctor via video conference doesn't sound so outrageous.

Doctor holding out stethescope
Sean Prior, ThinkStock

It already exists in the Garden State, but New Jersey is on a very short list of states without regulations specifically addressing the field of telemedicine — the virtual interaction between patient and doctor.

A bill advancing in Trenton aims to change that, creating a definition for the practice that spells out who's eligible to participate, which technology can be used and how the cost of services would be covered.

According to state Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, sponsor of the measure and head of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, telemedicine is "an expanding universe" of care for millions of Americans, and New Jersey "has the opportunity now to get this working in the right way, in the right manner that benefits patients first and foremost."

Vitale said virtual services can expand opportunities for providers to interact with more patients in a timely manner. And they open the door to services for people in underserved areas and those who cannot easily travel to appointments.

Speaking in favor of the measure, Dr. Adam Glasofer at Virtua said the hospital system already provides thousands of telemedicine consultations each year within many medical disciplines.

"In the near future, we plan to offer telemedicine for breastfeeding consults for new mothers, specialty care virtual visits for patients after surgical procedures, and even weight loss and nutrition," Glasofer said.

According to Glasofer, the demand for telemedicine services is on the rise as more New Jerseyans gain health coverage.

One component of the bill that requires health insurance companies provide coverage and payment for telemedicine services at least at the same rate as services provided in person.

Wardell Sanders, president of New Jersey Association of Health Plans, said this move could "limit the effectiveness" of telemedicine and "reduce some of the cost savings."

"We would argue that there should be flexibility in the law to allow for different payment structures for providers," said Sanders, who notes telemedicine is being used today with great success. "I think you're unnecessarily handcuffing some cost savings that may be attributable to different cost structures."

Under the measure, the prescription of dangerous controlled substances would not be permitted in a telemedicine visit until an in-person exam has been conducted.

The legislation has been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

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