Lawmakers on a Wisconsin Senate committee met Tuesday to hear testimony on a proposal seeking to legalize out-of-state telehealth appointments with mental health care providers for Wisconsin residents.
The Republican-led bill, introduced Oct. 16 by four senators and brought before the Senate Committee on Mental Health, Substance Abuse Prevention, Children and Families on Tuesday, would require providers to be licensed to offer services in their state and inform the patient of the state they practice in.
Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara, R-Appleton, told The Daily Cardinal the COVID-19 pandemic and a shortage of healthcare providers prompted the bill’s creation.
“Out-of-state providers were critical [during the pandemic] to meeting the needs of individuals seeking services, especially with the shortage of providers here in Wisconsin,” Cabral-Guevara said. “I’m hoping that this bill will allow that [service] to continue. Currently, it is not an option.”
Licensed out-of-state providers were previously able to provide virtual mental health services under Wisconsin Emergency Order #16, issued by Gov. Tony Evers during the pandemic in March 2020. The order expired 60 days after it was signed, which Cabral-Guevara said revoked access to out-of-state telehealth care throughout the state.
Bill cosponsor Rep. Joel Kitchens, R-Sturgeon Bay, agreed with Cabral-Guevara and told the Cardinal mental health issues have steadily increased for a number of years but that COVID “exacerbated the situation.”
In 2021, 36% of adults in the state reported symptoms of depression or anxiety, and over two million people in Wisconsin lived in communities with a shortage of mental health professionals, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
“This bill would allow struggling Wisconsinites continued access to quicker and more efficient telehealth services,” Cabral-Guevara said. “Wisconsin deserves better access to Telehealth treatment beyond public health emergencies.”
Alex Ignatowski, director of state budget and government reform for conservative think tank Institute for Reforming Government, testified at the hearing. He said the bill would help out-of-state college students attending UW institutions find care.
“Many college students are seeking help with depression or anxiety, and many have relationships with mental health providers back in their home state,” Ignatowski said.
Multiple amendments have been made to the legislation in response to requests from the Wisconsin Medical Society and the Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) to narrow the list of providers and require registration with DSPS.
The Assembly passed the legislation on a voice vote and the bill has not faced any significant Senate opposition, according to Cabral-Guevara. She hopes the bill will pass the Senate and reach Evers’ desk“before the end of January.