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Published Monday, September 9, 2019

Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration has an “ambitious timeline” for a $420 million broadband infrastructure expansion plan that includes telehealth as a main focus, one of his top aides said last week in Chicago.Nikki Budzinski, a senior advisor to Pritzker, spoke at the Telehealth Law and Policy Forum, hosted by Northwestern Medicine and McDermott Will & Emery at Northwestern Prentice Women’s Hospital.She chairs the Broadband Advisory Council, which is charged with developing a strategic plan for the money with an emphasis on education, telehealth and economic development.“The expansion of telehealth in the state of Illinois will help to contribute and provide greater access, more affordable access to citizens all across the state,” she told attendees.They’re hoping to get the plan to Pritzker in November, who’ll consider it and start moving resources at the start of next year, she said.

Earlier this summer, several Illinois healthcare associations and others agreed on a series of recommendations for how the state should use broadband expansion to increase access to healthcare. Nancy Kaszak, director of the Illinois Telehealth Initiative, said one of their priorities is connecting rural Illinoisans to healthcare providers.

Telehealth could help maximize the number of people who can provide medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorder and provide therapy for those in recovery, she said. And a final area of focus is boosting behavioral health for kids.

“We have a whole bunch of kids who need help,” Kaszak said. She cited a demonstration project in five Chicago public schools that used telehealth to meet children’s behavioral health needs.

Kaszak noted that the state’s recently enacted laws deal with expansion of Medicaid reimbursable originating sites and providers. Right now, there’s no regulations on how they’re planning to reimburse those providing services, so people don’t know how to use the laws.

“It’s basically reimbursement,” she said. “That’s the big question and knowing what the state’s going to pay for and what the state’s not going to pay for.”

Lia Daniels, policy manager at the Illinois Health and Hospital Association, said the state is behind in telehealth when it comes to reimbursement and state regulation.

“One of our biggest barriers is that our state law and regulation is opaque and it’s ambiguous and it’s placed in nine different laws,” she said. “Frankly, it’s very confusing and it’s difficult to navigate.”

Another barrier is that the state does not have a commercial parity law for telehealth. She said they’re pushing to align reimbursement for telehealth services so it’s the same as in-person treatments for the same facilities and providers.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Chicago, who also spoke at the event, announced that she’s writing new legislation that will provide grants to rural hospitals and health systems to enhance their cybersecurity to support the expansion of telehealth. Kelly said her team is still ironing out the final details.

“It’s imperative that our infrastructure and the health providers using it have the highest possible cybersecurity standards because the information flowing on the network could not be more sensitive,” she said.