Reproductive rights advocates announced Thursday that they were suing Ohio officials over the state’s ban on telemedicine abortion.
The suit follows the state’s passage in January of a law that requires physicians to be present when a patient takes abortion-inducing medication. Doctors who violate the law could face felony charges.
Advocates say the law presents unnecessary barriers, especially for patients who may already face difficulties accessing care.
“Safe, legal abortion is already extremely difficult to access for people in this state, particularly for Black people, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people with low incomes and people living in remote areas,” said Kersha Deibel, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio Region.
“Telemedicine is a widely used method of providing care,” Deibel added. “By singling out and excluding abortion services, the state makes clear that the intent of this law is not better health care for Ohioans – which should be the state’s focus, especially during a pandemic – but rather its sole purpose is to push access to safe, legal abortion further out of reach.”
WHY IT MATTERS
Amid the meteoric rise in telemedicine, abortion is one of the few forms of care that faces enduring legal restrictions.
In the suit, Planned Parenthood and its co-plaintiffs note that the state of Ohio has been generally supportive of telehealth, requiring private insurance plans to provide coverage on the same basis as for in-person care and parity for reimbursement for telemedicine through Medicaid.
During the pandemic, the state has also relaxed its telemedicine standards regarding controlled substances, say the plaintiffs. By contrast, it has increased restrictions around abortion.
As court documents explain, state law requires patients to visit a health center at least twice, more than 24 hours apart – the first time for a state-mandated ultrasound and in-person physician visit to discuss the abortion, and the second time to obtain the abortion.
Abortion via telemedicine in Ohio allows patients to visit health centers closer to their homes or workplaces for their second visit, connecting with physicians there via videoconference.
“The physician then presses a button … that remotely opens a cabinet in the other health center from which the patient obtains mifepristone,” said the suit.
“The patient ingests the mifepristone under observation by the physician on the video conference in the health center. Throughout this process, a member of the health center staff physically accompanies the patient to provide in-person assistance if needed,” it continued.
The plaintiffs argue that abortion via telemedicine in this fashion is as safe and effective as fully in-person treatment. Because there are only three abortion clinics in the state of Ohio, the plaintiffs note that requiring would-be patients to make two separate trips a day apart to faraway health centers presents patients with hurdles to access – including childcare, time off work and gas money.
“This law creates one more barrier for populations already struggling to access the health care they need. It’s unacceptable and we will not stand for it,” said Deibel.
THE LARGER TREND
Last year, a federal judge issued an injunction allowing for abortion via telemedicine to go into effect during the pandemic.
Under that ruling, providers could potentially mail patients abortion medication, thereby expanding access even further.
But in January, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the Trump administration’s request to reinstate the requirements mandating mifepristone to be dispensed in a clinic, hospital or medical office.
It is unclear what action President Joe Biden will take in this regard.
ON THE RECORD
“When the Ohio legislature and Gov. DeWine enacted this unjust law, their intentions were clear: Telemedicine is great, unless it is used in healthcare they don’t agree with,” said Iris E. Harvey, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio.
Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Email: [email protected]
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.
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