O’Halleran Bill Protects Telehealth Options for Rural Arizonans after COVID-19

September 30, 2021
Press Release

WASHINGTON – Today, Congressman Tom O’Halleran (AZ-01) and Representatives David B. McKinley (R-WV-01), Adrian Smith (R-NE-03), and Ron Kind (D-WI-03) introduced the Protecting Telehealth Access Act, bipartisan legislation that ensures rural health providers will be able to continue operating and treating patients by making telehealth flexibilities implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic permanent.

Roughly 60 million people—nearly one in five Americans—live in rural areas and depend on these rural health providers for care. Across the U.S., 136 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, with 20 closing in 2020 alone, a record year for closures. Rural Americans on average are older and have high rates of chronic health conditions.

“Arizona’s First Congressional District is rich in history, diversity of cultures, and stunning, sweeping landscapes, and is one of the most rural districts in the country,” said O’Halleran, who leads the House Blue Dog Coalition’s Task Force on Strengthening Rural America. “Regulatory burdens loosened to accommodate COVID changes should be made permanent so rural residents can more easily and affordably access quality health care options including telehealth and audio-only telehealth. I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan bill.”

“The pandemic has proven the value of telehealth,” said McKinley. “Particularly in rural areas, where access to care is a challenge, telehealth has provided a much-needed lifeline and improved care for millions of Americans. We need to take the lessons learned over the past year and a half and ensure we provide flexibility to meet the needs of patients and health care providers.”

"Rural health providers have effectively demonstrated how successful the current temporary telehealth authorizations can be in improving rural access to care," said Smith. "By making these rules permanent we can build on that success to further enhance health access in rural communities."

"Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has served as a critical tool for both patients and providers,” said Kind. "Telehealth has helped expand access to quality care and moving forward, we need to ensure communities across Wisconsin - especially rural areas - can continue to use these vital services. I'm proud to support this commonsense legislation to help telehealth remain accessible to all Wisconsinites."

The Protecting Telehealth Access Act would

  • allow payment-parity for audio-only health services for qualifying appointments;
  • permanently waive the geographic restriction allowing patients to be treated from their homes;
  • permanently allow rural health clinics (RHCs) and Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) to serve as distance sites for providing telehealth services; and
  • allows Critical Access Hospitals (CAHs) to directly bill for telehealth services.

Support for the legislation:

Alan Morgan, Chief Executive Officer, National Rural Health Association: “NRHA applauds Representatives O’Halleran and McKinley for their introduction of the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act. Telehealth flexibilities afforded to rural providers have been the true silver-lining of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ensuring that these flexibilities remain beyond the duration of the public health emergency is critical to the stability of rural providers. NRHA encourages Congress to move this critical piece of legislation forward to not only extend these flexibilities but modify them so that rural providers are able to participate in the health care delivery system of the 21st century.”

Ada D. Stewart, MD, FAAFP, President, American Academy of Family Physicians: “The AAFP is pleased to endorse the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act. The value of telehealth is optimized when virtual visits occur between patients and their primary care physicians – the doctors who know them best, have access to their complete medical records, and can provide continuous, seamless services when face-to-face follow-up care is necessary. This legislation protects the patient-physician relationship and ensures care continuity by allowing Medicare beneficiaries to access telehealth beyond the current public health emergency. The legislation also provides coverage of audio-only primary care and mental health services, which is essential for equitable access to care. We look forward to working with Congress to advance sustainable telehealth policies that support high-quality patient care provided by the medical home.”

Krista Drobac, Executive Director, Alliance for Connected Care: “The Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act calls needed attention to the importance of rural telehealth, including options for audio-only services and flexibility needed by rural providers like Critical Access Hospitals. The Alliance for Connected Care is pleased to see bipartisan, bicameral consensus around this legislation, which will expand patient access even in counties with health workforce shortages.”

J.R. Greene, FACHE, Chief Executive Officer, Psychiatric Medical Care: “We applaud the bipartisan introduction of the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act – crucial legislation which will help ensure Medicare beneficiaries are able to access the same services – either in a local Critical Access Hospital or through virtual care.  Psychiatric Medical Care, which was founded around the need for highly collaborative partnerships to support quality of life for older adults in rural communities, has found access to this virtual care crucial to meet Medicare beneficiary needs – needs that will not end with the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Jen Covich Bordenick, CEO of the eHealth Initiative (eHI): “Many Americans don’t have the ability to use a smartphone or the internet for appointments. Often Medicare recipients simply use a phone, or audio-only telehealth, to meet with their doctor. Regardless of the method, clinicians should have payment parity for their time. We are proud to support the Protecting Telehealth Access Act.”

The bill has also been endorsed by the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities, the American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work, and the American Academy of Neurology.