CHEYENNE - A new law could increase the number of physicians who can practice in the state.

Wyoming became the first state in the nation to join the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact when Gov. Matt Mead signed House Bill 107 at the end of February.

The compact creates a fast-track process for physicians who are licensed in one state to become licensed in another that is also a member of the compact.

Supporters say this could expand health-care options for residents who want to get remote telemedicine care or have out-of-state specialists come to them.

"Wyoming is so small that we just can't support large numbers of highly specialized physicians, so (the residents) often have to go across the border to Salt Lake City, Denver or Billings to get their care," said Kevin Bohnenblust.

He is executive director of the Wyoming Board of Medicine.

"But if we get these physicians licensed here, they can come to the state or provide care through telemedicine," he said.

Bohnenblust said it now can take several months - and require the Board of Medicine's approval at one of its quarterly meetings - to approve a license for an out-of-state physician.

But with the compact, that time could be reduced to a matter of days.

Bohnenblust predicts this could lead to a 10 percent increase in the 400 or so licenses that the board approves each year. For Wyoming, which faces a health provider shortage, this could make a major impact, he added.

Bohnenblust said this could, for example, make it easier for a Fort Collins, Colorado, doctor to travel to Wyoming to work a few hours at a clinic on the weekends.

With the growing use of telemedicine, Bohnenblust said this also would make it easier for a Wyoming hospital to electronically send an X-ray or other medical information to an out-of-state specialist.

The compact will only take effect when seven other states have joined.

So far, only South Dakota has followed Wyoming's lead.

But Humayun Chaudhry, president and CEO of the Federation of State Medical Boards, said 16 states are considering bills to join the compact.

And he said he expects the compact to grow to seven later this year.

At that point, a commission will be formed to develop how the expedited licensure process would work.

But Chaudhry said states would keep their authority to decide who can practice in their state.

"The commission won't be issuing licenses or investigating physicians," he said. "The basic functions of state medical boards would fully be retained."

Rep. Sue Wilson, R-Cheyenne, was the lead sponsor of House Bill 107. It passed with overwhelming support in the House and Senate earlier this year.

She said she was looking for ways to improve access to care in the state.

And when she found out that the Wyoming Board of Medicine was one of the groups that has been pushing for the interstate compact, she said it seemed like a smart choice to be one of the first states to be part of it.

"It is really a great opportunity, especially for a rural state like us, to make it easier for physicians to want to practice in Wyoming," she said. "And it maintains the local oversight role of the board, which is important."

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