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Alaska Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski last week introduced the Rural and Frontier Telehealth Expansion Act. The legislation aims to permanently expand access to telehealth beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Alaska senators were joined by Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), and Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) in introducing the bipartisan legislation. 

The Rural and Frontier Telehealth Expansion Act would increase Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) funding by five percentage points. This funding would be made available if a state covers telehealth services under Medicaid and is a frontier state or a state where less than 90% of the total population has access to broadband internet.

Senator Sullivan recognized the need for telehealth as a solution to access issues facing rural states like Alaska. He says making telehealth funding permanent is critical to bringing services to 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.”

Telehealth exploded over the past year. The CDC reported that the number of people who accessed telehealth grew 154% from March 2019 to March 2020. Results of this survey indicated that the increase was largely due to COVID but also suggested that providers and patients have become more comfortable with telehealth as access to services grew more challenging. 

Access in a state as geographically diverse as Alaska is crucial to successfully delivering health care, says Sen. Murkowski. 

“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.”

Broadband access in states like Alaska is limited and videoconferencing is often impossible. Senator Lujan emphasized the importance of including both video and audio-only in the bill calling it a “lifeline for underserved communities and communities lacking broadband.”

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