Affordable energy bill advances; telehealth bill goes to governor

The state Senate passed a bill late Wednesday to drive down Connecticut’s high electricity costs, particularly during winter and other peak demand periods.

The measure, which passed 25-8 and now heads to the House of Representatives, allows the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to solicit proposals for long-term contracts with generating facilities for power which would be purchased by the state’s electricity distribution companies.

“To just say ‘no,’ is not an answer,” said Sen. Paul Doyle, D-Wethersfield, who said ignoring the high cost of electricity is not acceptable. “We have to come to a conclusion.”

The bill would not limit DEEP to pursue contracts with generating facilities that burn natural gas. But it would give the state an opportunity to expand its use of that fuel, Doyle said.

Though Connecticut has made strides addressing the growing demand for natural gas, it is expected to grow considerably more over the next decade, particularly for electricity generation plants, Doyle said.

“While we have the demand going up for natural gas, primarily from our generators, the supply has not gone up correspondingly,” said Doyle, who co-chairs the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee.

He added that Connecticut particularly has paid the price for this lack of energy diversity in the winter months, when natural gas supplies often are low.

But opponents argued this amounts to little more than government meddling in the utility market, and would not translate ultimately into relief for ratepayers.

If the bill is enacted, electric companies could recover the costs of any energy they are required to purchase by seeking rate hikes.

“I think it (high electric rates) is because of us,” said Sen. Robert Kane, R-Watertown. “It’s because of government interjecting itself into the market.”

Kane added that “whether it’s $1 or $100 million, the ratepayers are going to pay. How are the ratepayers the winners?”

“We’re not picking winners and losers,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said. “We are looking at ways we can open up the market.”

Standards for online health care

In other legislative business Wednesday, the House voted 142-3 to pass a bill to establish standards for telehealth, a way for patients to receive medical care from a health care provider in another location using a phone, video or other technology.

The measure, which cleared the Senate last week and now heads to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, would prohibit telehealth providers from prescribe controlled substances and require that they give records of the interaction to a patient’s primary care provider if the patient consents.

Providers offering telehealth services to people in Connecticut would have to be licensed here, but wouldn’t be required to have a physical office in the state. The measure would also require insurance plans to cover telehealth services.

Health insurers, medical groups and other proponents of telemedicine say it can make medical services more convenient, reduce emergency room and urgent care visits and help physicians save time.

But the growth of telemedicine — and the ability it provides for patients to be seen by out-of-state doctors with Connecticut licenses — has drawn concern from some physicians, who favor more restrictive regulations. They say there’s reason to worry about fragmentation of care, interfering with the doctor-patient relationship and the potential for patients to abuse the system. They favor more restrictive regulations.

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