Amid COVID-19, Wolf vetoes telemedicine bill over abortion concerns

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    Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed a bill to mandate insurers pay for remote doctor’s visits because of a provision that restricts remote access to abortion.

    “This legislation arbitrarily restricts the use of telemedicine for certain doctor-patient interactions,” Wolf said in his veto message, adding that it “interferes with women’s health care and the crucial decision making between patients and their physicians.” 

    The proposal has been a bipartisan priority for years, as proponents say it would expand rural access to doctors and therapists, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only increased supporters’ efforts.

    But for two years, the proposal been held up by conservative lawmakers opposed to abortion rights.

    Senate Republicans called the veto “an act centered in political ideology” in a statement.

    “For years, I have fought for more efficient access and better health care of Pennsylvanians,” said Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Beaver, and the bill’s sponsor. “It’s disappointing that our rural families continue to face hours of travel to receive medical care instead of having access to a medical professional whenever and wherever it is needed.”

    In his own statement, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the veto would deny health care to Pennsylvanians and force them “to use in-person, COVID-19-related appointments, putting other patients and medical personnel unnecessarily at risk.

    The bill does not specifically ban abortions, but instead restricts the prescription of an abortion-inducing drug used by abortion providers, such as Planned Parenthood.

    The provision, added by the House last year, prevents doctors from remotely prescribing a list of nearly 60 FDA-approved drugs with potential side effects that may require additional attention from physicians.

    The list includes buprenorphine and suboxone, two drugs used to treat opioid use disorder. Critically for Wolf and abortion-rights allies, the list also includes Mifeprex, which terminates a pregnancy by blocking the production of the hormone progesterone. 

    The federal guidance for Mifeprex suggests that the drug only be prescribed by a trained physician, and “dispensed to patients only in clinics, medical offices and hospitals by or under the supervision of a certified prescriber.” 

    It does not clarify if a telemedical appointment is supervision or not.

    According to Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, approximately 11,400 abortions — 38 percent of all abortions in the Keystone State — are completed with mifeprex.

    As written, the bill would prevent individuals from going to a Planned Parenthood clinic for telemedicine appointments with a physician who could prescribe the abortion medication, according to the organization.

    Planned Parenthood did not know how many clinics would be impacted by the change, but said their clinic-to-clinic model increases access in rural areas and limits travel times for individuals seeking an abortion.

    A 2017 American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists study, partially funded by pro-abortion rights sources, found no difference in patient safety between a medical abortion and a clinical procedure.

    Seventeen states already prevent the remote prescription of abortion medications.

    A stern ally of abortion rights, this isn’t the first time Wolf has used his red pen to block legislation impacting abortion rights. He vetoed a 20-week ban in 2017, as well as a ban on abortion in case of a in-utero Down syndrome diagnosis last November.

    Capital-Star Reporter Elizabeth Hardison contributed reporting.