HARRISBURG — A bill to pave the way for broader use of telemedicine is setting up a standoff between some of the most powerful lobbying groups at the Capitol.

The American Association of Retired Persons and groups representing doctors and hospitals are on one side. On the other, the insurance industry.

Under Senate Bill 720, authored by state Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Beaver County, insurance companies would be required to cover the cost of services provided through telemedicine if they already pay for the service to be offered face-to-face. The legislation passed the Senate unanimously in June.

Wednesday, the AARP called on the state House to pass the bill, as well.

Telemedicine allows doctors and other health care professionals to meet with patients remotely through online videoconferencing technology.

“It's time for Pennsylvania to join 25 other states that have already improved access to quality health care by requiring insurers to offer coverage for telemedicine-provided services,” said AARP Pennsylvania State Director Bill Johnston-Walsh. “This legislation will also help patients receive care more efficiently, and allows both consumers and insurers to keep pace with advances in health care technology.”

Johnston-Walsh said providing coverage for telemedicine will expand the availability of health care, especially in rural areas. This is particularly important in Pennsylvania, which has the third-largest rural population and the fourth-oldest population of any state, he said.

“Telemedicine is reducing costs and helping providers collaborate to deliver life-saving care when seconds matter,” Andy Carter, president and CEO of the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, said after the Senate vote in June.

Insurance lobbyists said the industry recognizes the value of telemedicine, but told lawmakers at a Wednesday hearing at the Capitol that they think the bill is too broad.

“We cover proven value,” Sam Marshall, president and CEO of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania. Insurance companies recognize that some providers are effectively offering services through telemedicine but want to be able to negotiate so that they don’t have to cover the cost of telemedicine offered by providers in ways that may be less effective, he said.

Lawmakers said that surveys of hospitals and doctors show there are unexplained discrepancies in when and where telemedicine is covered by insurance companies across the state.

State Rep. Bryan Cutler, a former hospital administrator, said the technology has been in use for years in Pennsylvania and the telemedicine bill provides a means for the state to set ground rules to greatly expand its use.

“Too often, as legislators, we’re inundated with information about why we shouldn’t do things,” said Cutler, R-Lancaster County, the House majority whip. “One of the biggest complaints I hear is that legislation hasn’t been updated to keep pace with changes in technology.”

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