Sen. Wicker wants to expand rural telehealth services

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U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker helped introduced a bill this week with the goal of expanding access to rural telehealth services.

The Reaching Underserved Rural Areas to Lead on Telehealth Act, which Wicker co-sponsored with U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, would remove some limits on reimbursements for large non-rural hospitals under the Federal Communications Commission’s Healthcare Connect Fund.

“Telehealth services are critical to increasing rural Americans’ access to quality care,” Wicker said. “Mississippi is leading the nation in developing telehealth technology. Our health-care providers have demonstrated that targeted investments in telehealth can increase access to life-saving services and drive down costs.”

If passed, the legislation would allow non-rural hospitals in a telehealth consortium to qualify for the 65 percent health-care provider broadband connectivity discount under the Healthcare Connect Fund—as long as a majority of the hospitals in that group serve patients in rural areas.

Schatz said the discount “will give telehealth service providers better incentives to serve more rural areas.”

More than half of Mississippi residents live in areas classified as rural, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In the last decade, Mississippi has made significant strides in expanding access to telehealth, with legislation that mandates insurers reimburse telehealth appointments at the same rate as face-to-face encounters. In 2015, Mississippi was one of only seven states to receive an “A” rating from the American Telemedicine Association for its telehealth policy and legislation.

Although this bill directly benefits non-rural hospitals, a release from Wicker’s office stressed that the benefits would extend to rural hospitals.

“Quality telehealth service requires technical expertise that is difficult for many small, rural providers to acquire. Larger, non-rural telehealth providers can partner with a consortium of smaller rural providers to reach more patients throughout a given state,” the release said.

In 2013, Congress established the Healthcare Connect Fund as part of the Universal Service Fund to provide support for advanced telecommunications and information services for eligible health-care providers. Providers use these services to deliver telemedicine, transmit health records, and conduct other telehealth activities for improving patient care and reducing health-care costs.