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The bill aims to fix language in the CARES Act that expands Medicare coverage for telehealth, but swamps it in paperwork and in some cases enables clinics to receive more money for virtual care than for in-person care.

A new bill before Congress aims to make it easier for federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) and rural health clinics (RHCs) to receive Medicare reimbursement for using telehealth.

The Improving Telehealth for Underserved Communities Act (HR 6792), filed last week by US Reps. Adrian Smith (R-NE) and Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ), aims to amend language included in the CARES Act that expanded connected health coverage for RHCs and FQHCs, but also created a lot of paperwork and, in some cases, allowed providers to receive more for telehealth services than for in-person care.

“Rural health care faces enough challenges normally, let alone during this pandemic,” Smith said in a press release. “We must do everything we can to help rural providers so they can focus on serving their patients.”

“We also must seize the benefits of telehealth,” he added. “Fixing unintended flaws in reimbursement system will give these clinics and their patients the freedom to use these life-saving technologies.”

According to the two lawmakers, the bill would “simplify the Medicare payment system” by allowing RHCs and FQHCs to be reimbursed for telehealth services through the standard reimbursement formula, rather than the formula created by the CARES Act. The bill would also “provide additional financial relief for independent RHCs, which operate on extremely thin margins.”

Text of the bill had not been submitted as of May 11.

Designed to handle care for underserved and rural populations, FQHCs and RHCs have long sought to use telemedicine and mHealth platforms to improve access and boost clinical outcomes. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services had been reluctant to reimburse them, but relaxed those rules to address the Coronavirus pandemic.

Telehealth advocates are hoping more FQHCs and RHCs launch now programs and track their results, to build up a body of evidence proving the value of connected health programs to these providers. That data will come in handy when the emergency measures enacted to deal with the COVID-19 crisis expire, and federal and state governments consider how the telehealth landscape should look as the nation shifts back into a new normal.

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