A bill introduced this week in the House would ensure Medicare coverage for telehealth services provided by FQHCs and RHCs and eliminate originating site facility and location requirements for distant site telehealth services.
– A bill introduced in Congress this week aims to improve telehealth coverage for federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) and rural health clinics (RHCs).
Introduced by US Reps. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) and George Butterfield (D-NC), the Helping to Ensure Access to Local TeleHealth (HEALTH) Act of 2020 would, if approved, mandate Medicare coverage for telehealth services at these clinics and remove originating site facility and location requirements for distant site telehealth services delivered by them.
The bill would make permanent connected health coverage included in the CARES Act, which only lasts as long as the COVID-19 emergency, and bring into the spotlight one of the most troubling barriers to widespread telehealth adoption.
As defined by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, there are roughly 1,400 FQHCs and another 4,300 RHCs in the US, many of them serving predominantly underserved populations and communities. Because they’re haven’t been considered a distant site for telehealth by CMS, opportunities for reimbursement are few and far between, and many rely on grants and donations to offer telehealth services.
With the coronavirus pandemic sharply curtailing in-person care and putting both patients and providers at risk of catching the virus, many clinics have turned to telehealth and mHealth to keep the virtual doors open.
But the telehealth freedoms enabled by the CARES Act last only as long as the emergency. In addition, many experts note that the nation’s current economic troubles and soaring unemployment rate will leave millions without health insurance and push them toward these clinics for care.
Some states – notably Colorado and California – made moves prior to the pandemic to extend telehealth coverage for FQHCs and RHCs. In addition, the Creating Opportunities for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2019, introduced for a third time by a large group of Senators in October 2019, proposes to remove geographic restrictions on originating sites for FQHCs and other locations and allow them to qualify as distant sites for telehealth reimbursement.
“The HEALTH Act recognizes the new normal that community health centers and our patients are living in,” Chris Shank, CEO and president of the North Carolina Community Health center Association, said in a press release issued by Thompson and Butterfield. “The pandemic has led community health centers nationwide to adopt innovations like telehealth in order to protect the safety of patients and the medically underserved communities we serve. Through the temporary telehealth changes thus far, community health center patients have been able to access primary care and behavioral health services while physically distancing to limit spread of coronavirus.”
“Patients and providers alike will benefit from permanent telehealth access even once the virus is under control,” he added. “Allowing patients to connect virtually to their health care provider removes significant barriers like transportation, which disproportionately affects patients with lower incomes and those living in rural communities. The HEALTH Act will reduce longstanding barriers to health care access by reducing red tape and providing sustainable reimbursement for telehealth services provided by community health centers.”