Telehealth in Rural America: House Subcommittee Hears Testimony

For many of the more than 60 million people living in rural communities throughout the United States, telehealth serves as a literal lifeline, connecting patients with health care services when the number of physicians is limited and hospitals continue to close at staggeringly high rates. Last week, as Health Data Management first reported, the House Committee on Small Business Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy, and Trade, along with the Subcommittee on Health and Technology, heard from experts about the crucial role that telehealth plays for rural Americans, and about the importance of quality broadband access to the provision of these services—as well as the challenges they face with Medicare’s current limitations on reimbursement. “For the 62 million Americans living in rural and remote communities, access to quality, affordable health care is a major concern,” Dr. David Schmitz, who serves as president of the National Rural Health Association, told committee members in making the case for telehealth.

During the hearing, Schmitz and the other witnesses highlighted the potential that telehealth has to reduce health care costs for rural patients, as well as increase access to care. “Maximizing our utilization of health care resources through the use of technology is the only way we can reach all of the Mississippians who need lifesaving health care,” Michael Adcock, executive director for the Center for Telehealth at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, told committee members in his testimony, describing the success that the center’s telehealth programs had had in reaching rural patients who might otherwise have to spend time and money traveling to distant providers. But Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) limitations on Medicare reimbursement can pose a challenge for providers; witnesses noted in questioning Medicare’s policies that the Medicaid program has fewer restrictions. “The limitation of a patient being rural or non-rural doesn’t make sense when you have a neighbor who has Medicaid and they can see a doctor, and their next-door neighbor has Medicare and they can’t,” Barb Johnston, CEO of telepsychiatry company HealthLinkNow, told committee members.

Advocates have increasingly focused of recent on the role of broadband and on the limitations that Medicare places on reimbursement for telehealth services—particularly after the release earlier this year of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, also discussed during the hearing, asserting that outdated Medicare reimbursement policies and other coverage limitations are standing in the way of wider utilization. Some lawmakers have also sought to address the issues legislatively; indeed, of the numerous telehealth-related bills introduced during the 115th Congress, many specifically target Medicare restrictions. The bipartisan Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine (FAST) Act, for example, considered during a separate House hearing last week, would remove Medicare’s current geographic restrictions on reimbursement for telestroke services, which are limited to patients located in rural areas. Similarly, the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act would remove a number of current Medicare restrictions on telehealth and remote monitoring services.

Click here to read the article on the House Small Business Committee hearing from Health Data Management.

Click here for more information on the hearing from the House Small Business Committee.


Leave a Reply