March 12, 2021
The 2021 legislative session in Utah was a modestly significant one for healthcare. Specifically, there were impactful policy reforms regarding COVID vaccines, mental health and prescription drugs.
Two pieces of legislation regarding vaccines for COVID-19 passed the Legislature and now await the governor’s signature. One bill prohibits any government entity – including state agencies, public colleges and universities, public schools and county or city governments – from requiring that anyone receive a COVID vaccine. A second bill prohibits public colleges and universities from requiring proof of vaccination from students unless they offer exemptions for medical reasons and personal or religious beliefs. The former passed the Legislature almost unanimously, while the latter passed with large majorities.
Utah policymakers clearly think Utahns should not be compelled by government mandate to be vaccinated. The public health impact that these soon-to-be new laws will have on things like rates of COVID-19 vaccination and the length of the pandemic remains to be seen.
A raft of legislation seeking to address mental health passed this session as well. Two pieces of legislation contain measures to require insurers to cover mental health treatments delivered via telemedicine. Another bill helps fund the 988 suicide hotline program in Utah. Yet another bill establishes and provides training for and oversight of local mental health crisis intervention teams, and a separate bill establishes a council to study ways to offer better behavioral health support to youth and families and to offer recommendations on that to policymakers.
Due to Utah’s high suicide rate, it should come as no surprise that policymakers are giving a lot of attention to improving mental health in Utah and/or expanding access to mental health services. What is noteworthy is the bipartisan nature of the Legislature’s approach to the issue of mental health. Several of the bills are sponsored by a Republican in one lawmaking body and a Democrat in the other, and almost all of them passed with unanimous or near-unanimous support in both bodies of the Utah Legislature.
In recent years, Utah lawmakers enacted various reforms to the way Utah’s prescription drug market is regulated. The 2020 legislative session continued that trend.
Three bills addressed the regulation of pharmacies, including allowing pharmacists to prescribe certain drugs or medical devices within their scope of training and experience, ensuring the transferability of electronic prescriptions between pharmacies, and addressing various additional regulatory issues. One bill addressed the regulation of pharmacy benefit managers regarding a particular federal drug discount program. Many of these reforms are likely to impact patients’ experience and interaction with the prescription drug market, some in visible ways (e.g., potentially getting a prescription from a pharmacist instead of a doctor) and others less so (e.g., licensing of pharmacy technician trainees).
Healthcare policy impacts every individual and family in Utah in some form or fashion – from insurance premiums to the experience of seeing a doctor. It should come as no surprise, then, that healthcare legislation is plentiful each year.
The healthcare bills passed this year by Utah lawmakers will impact pandemic vaccination, mental health services and the prescription drug market in ways that are likely to be felt by Utahns for years to come – in both foreseen and unforeseen ways. While none of these reforms seem likely to cause a sea change in Utah’s healthcare system, they will have ripple effects and become the new baseline from which future healthcare reforms will take form. Only time will tell whether they will, on the whole, make medical care in Utah better and more affordable, or less effective and more expensive.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated both the strengths and the shortcomings of Utah’s healthcare system. What lessons can we learn from the pandemic to better support and strengthen healthcare in Utah? What improvements are needed?
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