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May 26—WASHINGTON, D.C. — People residing in rural areas of the United States, like those in North Dakota, are more likely more urban residents to die prematurely from five of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion uses several approaches to help improve the health of rural residents, including telehealth. Telehealth services are those services which are delivered through technology such as mobile phones or computers. The CDC says these services help reduce barriers to care for people who live far away from healthcare services and specialists, who have time or access restrictions or who have transportation or mobility issues.
Congressmen Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at enabling rural health providers to continue operations and treatment of patients by extending telehealth flexibilities implemented during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency.
"One positive advancement made during the pandemic is the increased access to telehealth," Armstrong said. "In rural states like North Dakota, patients often struggle to get the care they need due to a variety of factors, one being distance to the nearest provider. I am proud to support this legislation, which will prevent unnecessary regulatory barriers from hampering the advancement and implementation of telehealth services."
The legislation, the Connecting Rural Telehealth to the Future Act, would extend certain telehealth flexibilities for two years, giving patients and providers temporary certainty while Congress seeks ways to make them permanent.
Across the U.S., 138 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, with 20 closures coming in 2020 alone.
The Connecting Rural Telehealth to the Future Act will, according to Armstrong, extend all temporary telehealth provisions included in the FY22 omnibus through December 31, 2024; permanently allow the use of audio-only technologies when providers are evaluating or managing patient health or providing behavioral health services; restore Rural Health Clinic and Federally Qualified Health Clinic reimbursements for telehealth services to their normal reimbursement methods; and extend allowance for Critical Access Hospitals (CAHs) to directly bill for telehealth services.
Proponents of the bill include the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), the Critical Access Hospitals (CAH) Coalition, the National Association of Rural Health Clinics (NARHC) and the National Rural Health Association (NRHA).
"On behalf of Community Health Centers and the nearly 29 million patients they serve, I want to thank...Representative Armstrong for introducing the Connecting Rural Telehealth to the Future Act, and for championing our seniors' access to health center telehealth care in rural and hard reach areas," Rachel Gonzales-Hanson, interim president and CEO of the NACHC, said. "This pandemic has shown us the benefits of telehealth, and we simply cannot go backwards after this emergency ends. This legislation is an important step in ensuring health centers can continue to meet the needs of their patients into the future."
Echoing the sentiments of the NACHC, the CAH Coalition released a statement concerning the proposed legislation.
"The Critical Access Hospital Coalition strongly supports this legislation that allows CAHs to continue to provide telehealth services after the PHE ends and extends some of the most important flexibilities permitted during the PHE. This will serve to benefit patients across the country," the statement read.