East County News Service
August 20, 2021 (Washington D.C.) -- The Biden Administration has announced actions to improve the health of rural communities by making billions of dollars in American Rescue Plan funding available expand telehealth in rural and other under-served communities, help rural hospitals and medical providers meet COVID-19 needs, expand Medicare to include dental, vision and hearing benefits, and expand Veterans’ Administration (VA) training for rural providers, among other key goals.
“Telehealth is crucial to providing convenient and sustained care for patients,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “This funding demonstrates the Biden-Harris Administration’s strong commitment to expanding access to quality health care for everyone, including in rural and underserved communities. I will continue to support innovative solutions that will strengthen our health care system.”
Here’s a rundown of recent actions taken to improve health in rural areas:
Helping health care providers in rural areas cover costs associated with COVID-19 and keep their doors open. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is providing $8.5 billion in American Rescue Plan funding in the coming weeks to help compensate health care providers who serve rural Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP) patients for lost revenue and increased expenses associated with COVID-19. These funds will help ensure that providers can effectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and will place them on stable financial footing to continue serving their communities into the future.
Expanding rural hospitals and providers’ access to COVID-19 vaccines, testing, and supplies, while helping rural health care providers stay financially solvent in the long-term. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is using $500 million in American Rescue Plan funding to create the Emergency Rural Health Care Grant Program. The program will provide at least $350 million to help rural hospitals and local communities increase access to COVID-19 vaccines and testing, medical supplies, telehealth, and food assistance, and support construction or renovation of rural health care facilities. Applicants can also apply for recovery funds that compensate for lost revenue or staffing expenses due to COVID-19. In addition, the program will provide up to $125 million in grants to plan and implement models that help improve the long-term viability of rural health care providers, including health care networks that allow rural providers to collectively address community challenges and develop innovative solutions.
Training new rural health care providers, including community health workers and respiratory therapists, and expanding telehealth. HHS will make $52 million from the American Rescue Plan available to train a range of health care workers to fill in-demand professions affected by the pandemic. Specifically, HHS is creating rural health networks by pairing together minority-serving institutions, community colleges, technical colleges, rural hospitals, Rural Health Clinics, community health centers, nursing homes and substance abuse providers. Networks will focus on cross-training and sustaining community health workers in rural communities; expanding the workforce to support electronic health records as well as virtual and telehealth systems; expanding the capacity of emergency medical services reduced by pandemic-driven service reductions by developing Community Paramedicine programs; and training case management staff and respiratory therapists, who will play a critical role in helping rural clinical sites better serve patients affected by long-term COVID health challenges.The application will be available in the coming weeks.
Expanding access to pulmonary rehabilitation services. HHS is announcing that, in FY 2022, it will support a demonstration project to enhance access to pulmonary rehabilitation services in Critical Access Hospitals that serve rural communities with high rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., and adults in rural areas are almost twice as likely to have it compared to those in urban areas.
Expanding Veterans Affairs training programs for rural providers. The Rural Interprofessional Faculty Development Initiative (RIFDI), developed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), is an innovative two-year training program designed to provide teaching and training skills for clinicians in rural settings, preparing rural clinicians to take on faculty roles, mentor medical professionals to serve in rural America, and grow the healthcare workforce in rural communities. By the end of this calendar year, VA will launch a new joint initiative with HHS, adding non-VA community clinicians to the program. This joint initiative will benefit up to 40 rural communities each year and enable rural clinicians to better train the next generation of clinicians who will serve rural America.
Increasing access to telehealth. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is announcing that it will hold a virtual public workshop to identify ways to improve rural health through telehealth-guided provider-to-provider communication as part of its ongoing Pathways to Prevention series October 12-14th. In addition, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently proposed a new rule to expand access to telehealth mental health services for rural and vulnerable populations by allowing Medicare to pay for mental health visits furnished via telehealth when they are provided by Rural Health Clinics (RHCs) and Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs). This proposal would expand access to Medicare beneficiaries, especially those living in rural and other underserved areas.
BUILDING RURAL HEALTH BACK BETTER
The President’s Build Back Better agenda – also referred to as the reconciliation package –aims to build on these successes and deliver lower cost, higher quality health care to rural Americans.
Lower Health Care Costs. More than 12% of people living in completely rural counties lacked health insurance before President Biden took office; coverage under the Affordable Care Act (even with its premium subsidies) was too expensive for many families; and nearly 2.3 million people were not afforded coverage because their state refused to expand Medicaid. The Build Back Better agenda:
- Extends the higher premium subsidies that were a part of the American Rescue plan to keep health insurance affordable for millions of Americans, including those living in rural communities.
- Adds comprehensive dental, vision, and hearing coverage for Medicare beneficiaries, expanding coverage for millions of rural Americans.
- Expands Medicaid coverage in all states to cover to more rural Americans. In 2019, the rural uninsured rate was nearly twice as high in non-expansion states as expansion states.
- Invests $3 billion in improving maternal health and tackling health disparities.
Lower Prescription Drug Costs. Americans pay 2-3 times more for their prescription drugs than people in other wealthy countries, and nearly 1 in 4 Americans struggle to afford prescription drugs. President Biden’s plan would lower prescription drug costs for Americans by letting Medicare negotiate drug prices, so consumers, including those in rural communities, are no longer at the whim of pharmaceutical companies.
Keep More Rural Hospitals Open. The President’s Build Back Better proposal would help keep rural hospitals open by expanding Medicaid. Three quarters of rural hospitals that are vulnerable to closure are in states that have yet to expand Medicaid, and Medicaid expansion reduces the risk of rural hospital closure by 62%.
Improve the Safety of Rural Drinking Water. The bipartisan infrastructure legislation that recently passed the Senate deals with aging water systems that threaten public health in thousands of communities nationwide. An estimated six to ten million homes still receive drinking water through lead pipes and service lines. The legislation would upgrade and modernize America’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems, tackle new contaminants, and support clean water infrastructure across rural America with $56 billion in grants and low-cost flexible loans to states, Tribes, territories, and disadvantaged communities across the country.
For more information about HRSA’s rural programs, visit https://www.hrsa.gov/rural-health/index.html.
For more information about the Biden Administration’s steps to address health care in rural America, visit https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/08/13/fact-sheet-biden-administration-takes-steps-to-address-covid-19-in-rural-america-and-build-rural-health-back-better/.