WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV), a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), and Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), led a bipartisan group of Senators – including Senators Jon Tester (D-MT), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) – in announcing the introduction of their Rural and Frontier Telehealth Expansion Act. This bipartisan legislation would increase Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) funding for telehealth services, including audio-only telehealth, by five percentage points in frontier states or states with limited access to broadband if those states cover telehealth services under Medicaid.
“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need and demand for reliable and accessible telehealth services,” said Senator Rosen. “This bipartisan legislation would provide states with additional funding for telehealth services, incentivizing states to continue offering telehealth services under Medicaid. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many states authorized telehealth services as a temporary alternative to in-person care, but we must do more to make these services accessible even beyond the pandemic. It is clear that both video and audio telehealth services are critical care lifelines for rural and frontier communities, providing reliable, accessible, and meaningful care in many underserved areas.”
“During the pandemic, the necessity of telehealth has been front and center, particularly in rural states like Alaska,” said Senator Sullivan. “My team and I have worked relentlessly during the pandemic to temporarily increase access to telehealth and to expand those services for those who need them. Now that we are recovering from the pandemic, it’s critically important that we focus on permanently increasing access to telehealth. This bill is a positive first step toward providing permanent telehealth services in states that need these benefits the most: ultra-rural states and states with limited broadband.”
“Effective and reliable telehealth is an essential service in rural Montana,” said Senator Tester. “The COVID-19 pandemic showed the critical need for these services, and this bill would expand them so Montanans can continue their access long after the pandemic is over. In places where the nearest doctor is over an hour’s drive away, telehealth medicine provides lifesaving resources for many Montanans.”
“As we have seen over the past many months, telehealth has the potential to connect those in rural parts of our country with the health care resources they desperately need,” said Senator Capito. “By incentivizing some of our most rural states and states that still significantly lack access to broadband in many areas—like my state of West Virginia—to provide telehealth services for their Medicaid populations, we are taking an important step forward in improving both health care access and health care outcomes. I look forward to working with my colleagues to move this legislation forward.”
“New Mexicans in rural communities deserve access to high-quality health care that meets them where they are, and for many, that means video and audio telehealth services,” said Senator Luján. “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted these services are crucial and must be expanded. This bipartisan legislation would provide states with the necessary funding to increase access to vital video and audio telehealth services, which can be a lifeline for underserved communities and communities lacking broadband connectivity.”
“Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Alaskans across the state knew the need and the value of telehealth services. That need only grew when so many aspects of our daily lives went virtual during the pandemic—which included seeing a doctor or medical professional. This bill takes steps to support Medicaid telehealth programs in rural states like Alaska and in states who lack adequate broadband availability,” said Senator Murkowski. “I will continue to support telehealth, as it has been a valuable tool for Alaskans in helping fill gaps in healthcare access and affordability.”
BACKGROUND: This bipartisan bill would increase federal FMAP for telehealth services, including audio-only telehealth, by 5 percentage points if the state covers telehealth services under Medicaid and is a frontier state (Nevada, Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming) or a state “where less than 90% of the total population has access to fixed terrestrial broadband service of at least has fixed 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload according to the annual Broadband Deployment Report of the Federal Communications Commission.”
A recent report released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) found that a record 80 million people currently have health coverage through Medicaid. From February 2020 to January 2021, national Medicaid enrollment increased by more than 9.7 million individuals, a 15.2% increase. The report attributes this increase in enrollment to the COVID-19 pandemic and the increase in federal matching funds (FMAP) Congress provided to states as part of the bipartisan Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). FFCRA provides states with a temporary 6.2% payment increase in Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) funding.
Telehealth visits expanded dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, both for COVID-19 related visits and for care for conditions not related to COVID-19. An October 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found a 154% increase in telehealth visits during the last week of March 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.