Changes in Open Meetings, Telehealth Services Advance in Legislature

March 15, 2021, 5:29 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Changes to how we do things in the wake of the pandemic – in everything from how we hold public meetings to how we do mental health counseling – are advancing in the Legislature.

Sen. Mike Flood is sponsoring changes to the Open Meetings Act that specify how government bodies like city councils can run their meetings. His bill would let local governments hold meetings via “virtual conferencing” using programs like Zoom, under certain restrictions. There would still have to be a physical place where members of the public could go to participate. Members of government boards could participate remotely, but couldn’t vote remotely, unless an emergency had been declared by the governor, as is the case during the pandemic, or by local officials, for example, to authorize buying sandbags to hold back a flood. The bill also ratifies the legality of actions taken during the current emergency. Flood portrayed the changes as a natural continuation of a trend that was already taking place.

“More and more public bodies are putting their meetings on the internet or Facebook or media outlets are covering them on Facebook or on the internet, or on overall tv or radio. I don’t think we want to make major change, because I think just like Legislature it’s beneficial for us to be here in person and to interact in person. I think this is just another tool for safety purposes, mostly,” Flood said.

Sen. Dan Hughes said he’s heard of problems with virtual meetings.

“One of my constituents in one of my conference calls alluded to the difficulty of hearing some these small city councils or NRDs (Natural Resources Districts) or things like that, that the infrastructure for their microphones was not adequate to be able to Zoom their meeting,” Hughes said.

Flood said that shouldn’t happen.

“If a city council or a public body knowingly has an audio issue on their video conferencing, it’s something that perverts the reason for doing this – for allowing videoconferencing in the first place. And they would be remiss if it wasn’t immediately addressed because if you can’t hear ‘em – and quite frankly if you’re using a videoconferencing platform and you can’t see them, and you can’t see whose lips are moving or who’s talking -- it’s almost impossible for the public to weigh in,” he said.

Some senators said conducting meetings with virtual conferencing has actually increased public participation. Sen. John Lowe said he thinks it’s good to encourage that, but Lowe expressed reservations about letting officials meet virtually.

“I have problems… with individuals being scattered about a region, a town, a county, a state, a country, because you don’t know who’s on the other side of that camera or that laptop, coaching or telling someone what to do,” he said.

Sen. Curt Friesen also expressed reservations.

“I do think that personal meetings still need to be held quite often because there’s nothing like having a roomful of people and the citizens in that room when you’re making some tough decisions,” Friesen said.

Flood said no public body would be required to use virtual conferencing. And Sen. Tom Brewer, chair of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, said the changes are needed.

“It wasn’t the idea that we would take public meetings and throw them in the dustbins of history. The idea was that in certain circumstances, it was essential for us to be able to continue to do business. When the governor issues executive orders – emergency measures – we have to be able to make sure that it has the force of law,” Brewer said.

Senators then voted 48-0 to give the bill first-round approval.

Also Monday, senators advance another proposal requiring insurance companies reimburse mental health providers at the same rate for services they provide to a patient remotely, via telehealth, as for services they provide in person. Arch said providers have seen benefits from providing services remotely.

“Not only was it as effective, but there were people who preferred not going to the office, to be seen at the office, wherever that might be, to be identified as somebody that needs these services, but rather, can take these services even in their own home, which lowers that anxiety, lowers that concern about being identified,” Arch said.

Once again, Hughes said he understood the benefits, but pointed out there could be tradeoffs.

“Body language, you know, from someone when I’m having a meeting with them, tells you a lot…and that’s what I see as missing from telehealth, especially mental health,” he said.

Nevertheless, Hughes joined 45 other senators voting to give the bill first round approval. There were no “no” votes.