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The latest study from The National Rural Health Association (NRHA) reported that rural areas only had 39.8 doctors per 100,000 residents compared to 53.3 to every 100,000 in urban spaces. Mental health care is similarly challenging to access. The NRHA estimates that 60% of rural residents live in mental health shortage areas. In light of that, it becomes understandable that 65% of all rural residents seeking mental health support receive it from their primary care physician. In October 2020, Harvard released the Impact of Coronavirus on Households in Rural America, which reported that 25% of rural households could not access quality care for serious healthcare concerns.
While not a complete solution, telehealth and teletherapy services improve rural dwellers’ ability to access care. As Senator Ernst of Iowa informed the IARN, a radio network, during a recent interview about legislation related to telehealth in rural areas of Iowa, “Even before the pandemic, access to telehealth was critical to helping Iowans in rural areas get the care they need.”
Despite the dire need for healthcare services in rural America, many of the access benefits brought to citizens living in sparsely populated areas during the pandemic are about to expire. Introduced by the bipartisan team of Senators Joni Ernst and Joe Manchin, the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act seeks to secure continued Medicare reimbursement for telehealth services in rural areas.
Proposed Legislation for Telehealth in Rural America Can Help
The advantages of The Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act mentioned above do not stop at extending current telehealth and teletherapy exemptions. As described by Senator Manchin, the legislation supporting telehealth in rural areas also addresses other long-standing restrictions. The Senator explained,
- “[M]any rural Americans utilize audio-only telehealth appointments, which are now equally reimbursed after I fought to ensure that our healthcare professionals are reimbursed fairly for their hard work. When we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel for the COVID-19 pandemic, we immediately recognized the importance of making these telehealth flexibilities permanent.” Further, the Senator stated, “Our bill ensures that rural telehealth providers can give rural Americans the quality care they deserve by eliminating restrictions on the use of telehealth options and ensuring doctors can be reimbursed for services they provide to patients from the comfort of their homes.”
Endorsements From Within the AHA
The American Hospital Association (AHA) officially endorsed The Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act last month. After reviewing the proposed telehealth legislation, they stated:
On behalf of our nearly 5,000 member hospitals, health systems, and other health care organizations, our clinician partners – including more than 270,000 affiliated physicians, 2 million nurses, and other caregivers – and the 43,000 health care leaders who belong to our professional membership groups, the American Hospital Association writes in support of the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act.
The AHA, in particular, praised how the Act would allow audio-only services, a boon to the limited broadband communities Senator Manchin described to IARN. The AHA also argued that fair and equal reimbursement for telehealth and teletherapy services would ensure a higher level of care across the board. Given the needs of the rural community, the endorsement of the AHA, and the experience of the past two years have shown that teletherapy makes mental healthcare access easy in rural areas. The Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act seems a crucial piece of legislation. All the studies and surveys show the positive outcomes for patients and health care professionals in rural communities associated with telehealth.
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