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In an effort to prevent a "great" telehealth measure from getting mired in potential lawsuits, Sen. Brian Shiozawa prompted a legislative panel Tuesday to strip out prohibitive wording on abortion.
"We need this telehealth bill," said Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights. This move "is not pro-choice or pro-life, I want to take that off the table."
HB154, sponsored by Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, largely deals with reimbursement models for physicians using telecommunications to deliver health care remotely. But the last few lines of the proposed legislation barring clinicians from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine were drawing opposition among abortion-rights proponents, who argued those medical services were important to rural residents.
But the Senate Health and Human Services Committee eliminated that problem Tuesday by overwhelmingly approving Shiozawa's amendment to cut that portion of the bill. The committee then passed the amended legislation, sending it to the full Senate for debate.
Karrie Galloway, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said in an email Tuesday group officials were "thrilled" by the committee's decision and now support the legislation.
"We believe all Utahns (urban and rural) deserve access to safe, high quality reproductive health care, and know that telemedicine can be a vital part of that infrastructure," Galloway wrote. "We continually seek better ways to reach women and men living in rural Utah, including contracting with rural providers and utilizing new technology."
Utah Planned Parenthood currently does not prescribe the medication in question via telehealth, but spokeswoman Katrina Barker said in an email that officials are planning to do so soon "so that women in rural areas of the state do not have to travel to Salt Lake City to obtain an abortion."
A medical abortion, which uses two medicines that can end a pregnancy up to 10 weeks gestation, made up about 31 percent of all abortions in 2014. Prescribing such medication via telemedicine is prohibited in 19 states because the clinician must be present during the procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on reproductive health.
Ivory argued against striking abortion from the measure, saying it furthered the state's "legitimate interest in protecting women's health."
"Given the risks [of a medical abortion]," he said, "I think it's important we make a policy statement in the context of a bill that deals with telehealth."
The House last week voted in favor of HB154 with the abortion language intact.
But Shiozawa, a physician, said the provision amounted to the Legislature seeking to insert itself between a doctor and his or her patient, while also notinga potential concern of litigation.
A federal judge deemed a similar measure in Idaho law unconstitutional earlier this year.
The wording change "separates out two divisive issues," Shiozawa said. "I want to get telehealth through here, I don't want it to be bound up in constitutional problems."
Shiozawa said he'd even be willing to work with Ivory in drafting a separate bill that included the abortion language.