- The HHS unveiled its Rural Action Plan, which focuses partly on expanding telehealth in rural areas.
- However, the plan states it’ll put just under $9 million to supporting rural provider organizations’ telehealth strategies over the next four years.
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The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revealed its Rural Action Plan to combat the lack of availability and access to healthcare in rural US areas, according to Healthcare IT News. The plan focuses on four strategies to enhance rural healthcare—including facilitating the use of telehealth and other tech innovations.
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The HHS’ new plan could drive telemedicine adoption in rural areas—which has been difficult in part due to poor broadband access and a shrinking volume of care facilities—but it may not go far enough.
- The plan could knock down reimbursement barriers making providers wary about using telehealth beyond the pandemic. The HHS doubled down on plans issued recently in the US’ fiscal 2021 budget that would reimburse rural health clinics for virtual care at similar rates as comparable telehealth services under the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule. For context, the CMS released the 2021 physician fee schedule last month with nine new permanent telehealth codes tacked on, per Healthcare Dive. This should come as a relief to physicians who are unsure about the future of payment structures and were considering ditching telehealth for fear of reduced payments: In late July, 21% of primary care physicians said private insurers reduced telemedicine reimbursements compared with the start of the pandemic.
- However, we think the plan falls short when it comes to funding. The Health Resources and Services Administration has put about $30 million toward expanding telehealth in 2020—and the plan states it’ll put just under $9 million to supporting rural provider organizations’ telehealth strategies over the next four years. We agree with health policy experts—like Johns Hopkins’ Ge Bai—who say that this won’t be enough cash to sustain widespread telehealth initiatives in rural areas. Setting up the bandwidth necessary to fuel telehealth programs is a long, complex, and expensive process, Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior counselor to the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, says—especially considering rural consumers’ current lack of access: In 2019, one-third of rural US households didn’t have broadband connection, according to Pew Research Center.
While the HHS gets moving on its Rural Action Plan, we think telemedicine startups with hospital-facing solutions should move in to address the untapped market. Rural areas are facing physician shortages much graver than those in urban areas. Telehealth could help stretch a thinning doctor pool, but hospitals need assistance with providing the infrastructure.
For instance, small, rural Louisiana-based hospital Beauregard Health teamed up with SOC Telemed—which sets hospitals up with the tech backbone needed to run telehealth programs—to launch telemedicine programs for several specialty areas in June. As the government continues to peel back barriers to telehealth, we think more telemedicine startups will roll out programs that facilitate telehealth initiatives that connect small hospitals with larger health systems.
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