Telehealth in Rural AreasIn December, U.S. Congressman Jason Smith introduced the Permanency of Audio-Only Telehealth Act. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS) will be obliged to continue to reimburse certain audio-only telehealth visits. The TBHI also published a blog discussing the executive order on improving rural telehealth access.

At the outset of the Coronavirus pandemic, Congressman Smith held a call with 50 health care providers, doctors, and other medical professionals from around southern Missouri to address the resources needed to combat the pandemic. Matters concerning Medicare’s strict telehealth policy, which requires video communication as mandatory, were brought to the light. This creates barriers for patients residing in underserved communities and regions to receive timely medical treatment. Congressman Smith subsequently requested the Trump Administration to update Medicare guidance. Seniors and patients will be able to consult with the healthcare providers over the telephone instead of the in-person or video conference telehealth visit. CMS took a historic and unprecedented step to make telehealth in rural areas possible for patients who may lack access to broadband or video technology.

Specifically, Smith’s legislation would require CMS to continue reimbursing providers for audio-only telehealth evaluation and management services and mental and behavioral health services. Additionally, the bill would remove geographic restrictions to allow Medicare beneficiaries’ homes to be telehealth originating sites for audio-only telehealth services.

“One of the lasting impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic is the rapid expansion and increase in the utilization of telehealth services.” Smith continued, “For rural and underserved areas who struggle with access to broadband and technology, none have had a greater impact than audio-only telehealth visits.”

American Psychological Association and New Bill 

“The American Psychological Association commends Reps. Jason Smith and Tony Cardenas for their bipartisan leadership on telehealth legislation that will increase access to essential mental health care for Medicare beneficiaries beyond the pandemic,” said APA CEO Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D. “Allowing patients to receive mental health services by audio-only telephone is a matter of health equity for underserved populations, and APA applauds this important equalizer. This bill will allow patients to receive services at home no matter where they live − whether in rural, urban, or suburban communities.”

National Association of Social Workers and New Bill 

“Audio-only access is imperative in ensuring access to urgently needed mental and behavioral health services, especially for marginalized groups. The pandemic has laid bare the major disparities in health across the nation. Eliminating these disparities must be one of our highest priorities. Making audio-only telehealth permanently available is one of the key mechanisms for advancing this priority.” – Anna Mangum, MSW, MPH, Deputy Director of Programs, National Association of Social Workers.