Rural Health Information Hub Latest News

House Sets up Votes on Two Bills and COVID-Related Hearings

This week, the House introduced and is planning to vote on legislation to strengthen the Affordable Care Act (ACA), known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Enhancement Act. Also, the House recently introduced a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package, known as the Moving Forward Act (H.R. 2). The bill includes a provision to authorize $10 billion over five years for health center capital projects. The House expects to take up this bill next week. While both bills will likely pass the House, the prospects in the Senate are less favorable. In addition, several congressional committees held hearings this week as they continue to monitor the COVID-19 response. The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on Monday to discuss how COVID-19 has exacerbated racial disparities, the Senate HELP Committee held a hearing on Tuesday to look at lessons learned from the pandemic and the House Energy and Commerce Committee looked at the Administration’s response to the pandemic.

Senate Health Committee Chair Wants to Make Telehealth Changes Permanent

Senate health committee Chairman Lamar Alexander recommended the federal government permanently extend policy changes that allow physicians to be reimbursed for a telehealth appointment wherever the patient is located as well as policy changes that doubled the number of telehealth services that could be reimbursed by Medicare. He also said there are 29 other temporary federal policy changes that could also be considered for being made permanent. Read more.

Insurance Department Issues Guidance on Inappropriate COVID-19 Billing Practices

Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner Jessica Altman announced that the Insurance Department has submitted a notice to the Pennsylvania Bulletin outlining guidance for insurers that encounter providers engaging in inappropriate billing practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. The notice is a continuation of Notice 2020-03, issued March 21, 2020, which urged health insurers to help consumers avoid balance billing and surprise balance bills. The notice also recommended health insurers make all necessary and useful information available on their websites, or through consumer assistance lines, to provide readily available accurate information for insureds during the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The COVID-19 Surprise Bill notice encourages health insurers to continue with guidance issued in previous notices and encourages companies and agencies to be aware of new potential billing issues that have arisen in context of the continuing pandemic. Click here to read the release.

PA House Announces New Leadership

Following the retirement of House Speaker Rep. Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny), the Pennsylvania House of Representatives conducted leadership elections this week. Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), who was previously the House Majority Leader, was unanimously elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) was elected House Majority Leader, Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion) was elected House Majority Whip, replacing Rep. Benninghoff, and Rep. Marty Causer (R-Mckean) was elected House Majority Policy Chair. House Majority Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor (R-York) keeps his position, as do Reps. Marcy Toepel (R-Montgomery), Majority Caucus Chair, Mike Reese( R-Westmoreland), Majority Caucus Secretary, and Kurt Masser (R-Northumberland), Majority Caucus Administrator. The leadership changes came during the last scheduled session week for the House before a summer recess.

DOH Applies for $301 Million Federal COVID-19 Response Grant

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine announced that the Department of Health (DOH) has applied for a more than $301 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to strengthen state and local public health capacity in Pennsylvania. More than $100 million of the funding would go to Pennsylvania’s six county health departments and four municipal health departments, who have primary responsibility for public health efforts inside their jurisdiction. The funding will support six primary strategies to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic including:

  • Continuing work to develop a robust testing and contact tracing strategy
  • Supporting local health departments
  • Investing in public health surveillance and laboratory infrastructure

The grant submission focused on ensuring minority and underserved communities are targeted for testing, outreach and that we have improved demographic data collection. Click here for a breakdown of the six strategies and corresponding funding.

#WellChildWednesdays Social Media Campaign Encourages Keeping Up with Pediatric Checkups and Immunizations

Fewer children are receiving timely immunizations this year compared to last year. To encourage parents and stakeholders to keep up with these important well-child visits and immunizations, HRSA launched a new social media campaign with the hashtag #WellChildWednesdays. Each Wednesday for four weeks, messages will address well-visits, immunizations, adolescent and young adult care and nutrition, safety and mental health as topics to be discussed with pediatric providers. The first message already posted, and more messages will appear on Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #WellChildWednesdays. Please share, retweet and promote #WellChildWednesdays to help amplify this important message.

FCC Distributes $100 Million to Health Systems in Order to Improve Telehealth Infrastructure 

After the CARES Act allocated $200 million for telehealth funding in March, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) distributed over $100 million in funding to approximately 300 healthcare facilities to further aid telehealth during the pandemic. However, smaller, not larger, rural hospitals need more funding to improve telehealth systems. Since 2010, about 130 rural hospitals have closed and the pandemic has further exacerbated the crisis. Telehealth could help rural providers deliver care to their patients, but issues with poor broadband internet service and limited at-home access to technology make virtual care difficult. In contrast, larger hospitals likely have more resources to provide virtual care. Allocating resources specifically to smaller rural hospitals, rather than larger hospitals who not struggle accessing and incorporating telehealth technology, would allow these facilities to more effectively provide virtual care.

In Rural Areas, Nurse Shortage Hinders Fight Against COVID-19 – Fewer Professionals Makes Task Tougher 

Rachelle Bradley, as an emergency room nurse, is fighting the coronavirus spread in the North Carolina town show grew up in. This is the only hospital in her area, and the coronavirus is now spreading rapidly in rural areas. The Northwest Regional Center for Rural Development at Pennsylvania State University states that the virus is spreading more rapidly in rural communities than in urban, increasing the strain on rural health care providers. There is a major strain due to the shortage of nurses and skilled professionals in rural areas, not the lack of rooms or beds, and while the healthcare labor shortage is not a rural-only issue, there is a disproportionate burden in rural areas.

Vulnerable Rural Hospitals During the COVID-19 Pandemic 

COVID-19 has accelerated the threat of rural hospital closures. Although rural hospital closures threaten communities nationwide, communities serving higher percentages of non-white populations are at a higher risk of closure. Southern states that have not chosen to expand Medicaid, that have higher percentages of non-white populations, and where people rely more on emergency services, are at high risk of experiencing a hospital closure. Furthermore, the spread of COVID-19 is escalating in rural areas, which causes researchers to fear that areas with weakened rural health care infrastructure will not have the capacity needed to treat large surges of patients.

Rural Healthcare and COVID-19: A Research Roundup 

Journalist’s Resource has compiled a Rural Healthcare and COVID-19 research roundup, which includes multiple rural health stories describing how COVID-19 has affected hospitals, such as the stories described below. Rural hospitals are less equipped to react to a pandemic than its urban counterpart due to fewer hospitals, fewer specialty care physicians, and fewer intensive care unit beds per capita. Before the pandemic, rural hospitals struggled financially, and measures to combat COVID-19 further complicate the crisis.