Wolf says he will veto telemedicine bill that constrains access to abortion

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

(*This story has been updated to include new information about Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto)

The 50 members of Pennsylvania’s state Senate seemed to all agree on one point Tuesday: that the General Assembly ought to expand access to telemedicine so that patients can see doctors and get prescriptions over the phone or computer.

But a bill that would require private insurers to pay for such services split the Senate along party lines, thanks to a clause that prevents doctors from prescribing an FDA-approved abortion drug. 

The Senate voted 29-21 on Tuesday to send the telemedicine measure to Gov. Tom Wolf, who said last fall, after the bill advanced out of the state House, that he’d oppose the legislation as long as it limited access to abortion drugs. 

Republican lawmakers voiced hope Tuesday that Wolf would swallow his hesitations and let it become law, now that the COVID-19 pandemic has made telemedicine an essential part of the state’s healthcare infrastructure.

“There’s probably never been a time when telemedicine is more important than it is today,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, who decides what bills the Senate votes on, and when. “We need this done, and I hope everyone can look to the bigger picture and embrace moving forward.”

But Wolf announced hours later that he would veto the bill, winning praise from abortion-rights advocates. 

“We applaud Governor Wolf for demonstrating his commitment to reproductive rights by standing up to the anti-abortion politicians and activists who are trying to exploit this unprecedented public health crisis to block access to safe, legal, and essential abortion care,” Emily Callen, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, said in an emailed statement.

The Senate voted 47-1 last October to approve the telemedicine bill, sponsored by Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Beaver, saying it would be a boon to rural Pennsylvanians who don’t live near medical providers or therapists. 

But that was before House lawmakers added the provision restricting access to 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, as well as Mifeprex, which terminates a pregnancy by blocking the production of the hormone progesterone. 

One of the most widely used abortion drugs in the United States, Mifeprex has been FDA-approved since 2000. 

The agency says the drug is safe and effective as long as it’s properly used, though it can cause cramping and vaginal bleeding. It also shouldn’t be given to women with ectopic pregnancies or certain pre -existing conditions, according to the FDA website. 

Senate Democrats who voted against the bill Tuesday said they wanted to expand access to telemedicine in Pennsylvania, and accused the chamber’s Republican majority of forcing them to compromise their stances on abortion access during a public health emergency. 

“I would love to see telemedicine, and I frankly resent it when I hear that it’s our fault that we’re not passing this legislation,” Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, said.

Democrats argued that the chamber should revert to the old version of the bill they approved in October. 

But the Rules Committee struck down proposed amendments from Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, before the chamber gave its approval to the previously approved House bill.

Republicans argued that the bill would not change abortion access in Pennsylvania, since nothing compels private insurers to cover Mifeprex that’s prescribed over telemedicine. 

The Pennsylvania Medical Society, which represents physicians and medical students across the state, declined to comment Tuesday on the current rules governing abortion drugs and telemedicine in Pennsylvania. 

The group also did not take a position on the Senate bill, even though it “has long advocated for a telemedicine statute that ensures the delivery of safe and appropriate care, and that health insurers are mandated to pay for these services,” a spokesman told the Capital-Star in an email.

Abortion is legal in Pennsylvania until the 24th week of pregnancy. As the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reported in November, roughly 11,400 abortions — 38 percent of all abortions in the Keystone State — are done with Mifeprex, according to Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates.