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Telehealth, Broadband Access Are Key to Trump Rural Health Plan

Nov. 22, 2019, 10:29 AM

Connecting rural patients to doctors through broadband will be an integral component of the Trump administration’s policy to bolster health care in rural areas, a senior HHS official said.

The broad strategy is being developed across all agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services to let communities leverage technology to expand access to care.

The HHS also is exploring a partnership with the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering adding more federal funding for telehealth and broadband infrastructure, according to the official, who agreed to provide the information on the condition of anonymity.

The FCC has announced a major investment in rural broadband. Access to broadband is an important step to facilitate telehealth, which can allow patients and health providers to stay in touch even if they’re miles apart. The distance rural patients must cover to get basic care is a major barrier to ensuring their conditions can be managed early on.

Other government agencies could also be involved in the sweeping effort.

Political analysts say it would make sense for President Donald Trump to turn his focus to rural health as the 2020 presidential election approaches because many of his base voters are in rural areas. HHS Secretary Alex Azar has convened a rural health task force at the department.

The department is particularly focused on rural American because rural health is “the crisis right now,” with a quarter of rural hospitals in financial distress, the official said.

One barrier to the effort is in how the government accountants currently look at telehealth, the official said. Both the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of the Actuary currently view telehealth policies as “net costers” for taxpayers because they assume easier access to doctors via the internet will drive up use of government health programs.

But the administration is seeking data from telehealth providers to show that their services actually drive down costs by keeping rural patients on a steady regimen of care and out of expensive emergency situations.

The department is already at work on a model for paying rural health providers based on the value of the care they provide, rather than the individual services.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shira Stein in Washington at sstein@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.com

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