The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work together on the Rural Telehealth Initiative, a joint effort to collaborate and share information to address health disparities, resolve service-provider challenges, and promote broadband services and technology to rural areas in America.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of telehealth in delivering quality healthcare to rural Americans. The action delivers on President Trump's recently signed executive order on improving rural health and telehealth access.
Rural Americans are acutely affected by gaps in the healthcare system, from hospital closures to a lack of specialty care. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rural Americans, who make up more than 15% of the U.S. population, face numerous health disparities compared with their urban counterparts. Rural Americans are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease and strokes than their urban counterparts.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT?
Telehealth plays an increasingly critical part in treating patients, improving health outcomes, lowering costs and helping healthcare providers maximize their impact on their communities, especially in rural areas of the U.S.
The challenge to rural healthcare has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with certain areas of the country in need of enhanced connectivity to provide health services to residents.
Upon adoption of the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, the FCC has approved 539 funding applications for a broad swath of providers ranging from mental health clinics to community health centers and nonprofit hospital systems in both urban and rural areas. That, said HHS, allowed for more patients to be treated at home, thus freeing up hospital beds and mitigating potential exposure to the coronavirus. The partnership with HHS and the USDA is meant to extend these efforts.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the USDA is committed to increasing access to quality telehealth services and working to expand broadband availability in rural areas. USDA's Rural Broadband ReConnect program is doling out up to $650 million in loans, grants and loan-grant combinations to facilitate high-speed Internet to rural communities that lack access.
As part of this Memorandum of Understanding, the agencies intend to establish an interagency Rural Telehealth Initiative Task Force comprised of representatives from each agency. This task force will meet regularly to consider future recommendations or guidelines for this effort and exchange agency expertise, scientific and technical information, data, and publications.
THE LARGER TREND
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of telehealth in U.S. healthcare, and according to Fitch Ratings, providers and distributors are poised to benefit from this trend, as remote care services are helping to effectively provide a revenue stop-gap during this time of social distancing and patient apprehension over entering the healthcare system.
Telehealth is largely providing revenue continuity, and the ripple effects are being felt in the supply chain as well, with doctors continuing to prescribe medications.
All of this is good news for hospitals and health systems, but it comes with one caveat: The demand for telehealth after the pandemic ends will depend on whether payers – including Medicare and private insurers – continue to reimburse telehealth at current levels. At the moment, its reimbursement is higher than in the past due to temporary waivers that are slated to evaporate once the public health crisis comes to a close.
ON THE RECORD
"This Trump Administration-wide partnership will help more Americans in rural areas get access to the care they need," said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. "Better access to telehealth in rural America means better health for some of our most vulnerable and greater resilience at times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. President Trump has made rural health a priority throughout his time in office, making payment reforms to help rural hospitals and establishing a Rural Health Task Force at HHS. We look forward to working with our colleagues at the FCC and USDA to expand access through telehealth to quality, affordable care for the 57 million Americans living in rural areas."