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CHEYENNE – Weeks ahead of what will likely be the Wyoming Legislature’s second special session of the year, lawmakers on an interim committee advanced a bill Friday that would provide financial aid to the state’s community health centers.

Through the bill, individual grants worth up to $400,000 would be available to the state’s community health centers, community mental health centers and rural health clinics.

The grant program, which won overwhelming support from the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee on Friday, would use up to $15 million of the state’s $1.25 billion in federal relief funds.

“This is part of our project attempting to push CARES Act money through the system in the simplest way possible,” Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, who co-chairs the committee, said of the bill.

The grants would be used to cover expenses related to COVID-19, including any targeted construction needs that emerged during the pandemic. Since federal guidelines require the state spend its CARES Act funding by the end of the year, any potential projects would avoid ongoing costs.

“The ideas that I’ve gathered from the various clinics would be telehealth hardware, electronic health record hardware, (or) if you needed to remodel your clinic to come up with an isolation room to see folks,” Wilson said of potential uses for the grant money.

If the bill is approved by the Legislature in a special session, the Wyoming Department of Health would administer the program. During the meeting, department Deputy Director Stefan Johansson said while some grants might not get spent by the end of 2020, it remains unclear precisely what is allowed under the federal guidelines.

“If we were to send those funds to the providers before (the deadline of) Dec. 30, I think an interesting financial question is whether they could then be used for a capital construction project beyond Dec. 30, 2020,” Johansson said.

The legislation also had the support of Wyoming Hospital Association President Eric Boley, who told lawmakers the bill was “vital” for rural health clinics.

“The CARES Act funding that the state received is supposed to be used to help not only prepare us currently, but in the future, for a pandemic,” Boley said. “Our rural health clinics have had to make modifications to their physical plants in order to have social distancing, in order to protect their employees, in order to protect the patients as they come in, so I think this bill is ideal.”

The committee then overwhelmingly approved the bill, which was one of two that won lawmakers’ approval during their day-long meeting Friday.

The other bill advanced by lawmakers would guarantee parity in how health insurance companies cover telehealth services for mental health and substance abuse services. The proposal had support from representatives of the Wyoming Counseling Association and the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substances Abuse Centers, both of whom spoke of how critical telehealth has been for their services during the pandemic.

Lindsay Simineo, representing the Wyoming Counseling Association, said though insurance companies initially denied coverage for some telehealth services, they have changed their policies during the pandemic.

“In light of that, we are in huge support of this bill to make this a permanent bar for insurance payers to cover these services,” Simineo added.

The committee also discussed a bill revamping a student loan repayment program for health care providers in the state, but lawmakers ultimately decided to table the proposal over worries about whether federal relief money could be used for the program. Wilson, who offered the proposal, said it was worth considering in case the state receives additional federal money with looser guidelines.

“We’ll, at the very least, keep thinking about it,” Wilson said.

The committee, which also received brief updates from several state agencies on their responses to the COVID-19 emergency, will likely meet again for another one-day meeting before the Legislature’s second special session in late June.

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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