January 14, 2021 9:54AM

Arizona, First in Occupational Licensing Reform, Now Poised to Become First in Telehealth Reform

Absorbing lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey plans for Arizona to once again lead the way in health care reform, this time by seeking legislation to make permanent his emergency executive order that allows Arizona residents to obtain telehealth services from practitioners licensed in any of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. While many states have taken similar emergency steps to improve access to health care during this public health crisis, unless their legislatures act, the emergency orders will expire when the crisis is over. If Governor Ducey convinces Arizona legislators, Arizona will become the first state in the union to permanently allow out‐​of‐​state licensed health care practitioners to render telehealth services to its residents.

The Governor’s 2021 Policy Priorities reported that many Arizonans—particularly those in rural areas—benefited greatly from the emergency telehealth action, with behavioral health services among those most utilizing the remote technology.

Under current law, Arizona—like every other state—allows patients to travel out of state to receive medical treatment and even surgery from a doctor licensed in that state, but those same doctors cannot provide telehealth services to patients in Arizona without an Arizona license. Removing that requirement will give Arizonans access to care from the best health care practitioners in the country.

As the 2021 Policy Priorities states:

A person who is visiting a family here or spends the winter here, should be able to reach their doctor in their home state by telemedicine. A family in Mohave County who utilizes a hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada should be able to get follow up care via telemedicine. Today, someone who has the means to travel to a consultation with a specialist in another state can do so. Specialty doctors should not only be accessible via an expensive flight and hotel stay. If a specialty provider is willing to do a consult via telehealth, Arizona patients should have easy access to those services without unnecessary travel expenses and Arizona is going to lead the way on this. If it’s safe and it works during a pandemic, we should embrace it when we’re not in an emergency as well. (Emphasis added.)

When, in April 2019, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed into law HB2569, it made Arizona the first state to recognize all out‐​of‐​state professional and occupational licenses. As a result, any health care practitioner with a license in good standing in any of the other 49 states and the District of Columbia can now establish a practice in Arizona and the relevant state licensing boards will issue them an Arizona license. Unlike a license reciprocity law, which recognizes licenses of out‐​of‐​state license holders hailing from states that recognize Arizona licensees in return, this “universal” licensing law recognizes out‐​of‐​state license holders unilaterally.

In June of 2020 the Arizona‐​based Goldwater Institute reported that, since the law was enacted, “about 1,454 people have applied for an Arizona license under the law. Of those, at least 1,186 have had their licenses approved while only 16 have been rejected.” Among the boards granting the most approvals were those in the fields of behavioral health, social work, medicine, dentistry, occupational therapy, and clinical psychology.

Now Arizona can take the lead in liberating telehealth. Legislators in other states are also contemplating such reform.

This past November I was privileged to testify before a joint committee of the Idaho legislature that is considering telehealth reform. As expected, the committee received pushback from representatives of incumbent licensed health professions. They claimed to be very much in favor of telehealth, and supported state laws requiring insurance payments for telehealth services, but cautioned that it was unsafe to let Idahoans receive care from practitioners licensed in other states, even though every state has essentially identical license requirements and every state—including Idaho— licenses practitioners who received education and training in other states. Arizona legislators should expect similar resistance when they take on the Governor’s proposal. It’s understandable. If reform is enacted, practitioners would have additional competition from out‐​of‐​state.

Following Arizona’s lead, several states, including Pennsylvania, Missouri, Montana, and Utah have since enacted similar universal licensing laws. If Arizona enacts telehealth reform, expect other states to follow suit as well. Some critics claim that too many leaders prefer to carry out great reforms second—not first. That statement doesn’t appear to apply in Arizona.