Senator Calls for Expanded Rural Broadband, Increased Use of Telehealth, Added Mental Health Services

WASHINGTON, D.C. [02/10/21]—Today, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.), a member of the Senate Health Committee, told rural health leaders from across the country that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a devastating crisis in rural health care delivery, and has exacerbated the already-steep challenges that have plagued rural providers in Minnesota and across the country for years. 

Sen. Smith, in her virtual remarks to the Rural Health Policy Institute on Wednesday, said the pandemic has increased costs and decreased revenues for rural health providers, who also have struggled to get the ventilators and protective equipment needed to treat an influx of COVID-19 patients and protect frontline workers. The lack of broadband internet services across wide swaths of rural America has also hampered efforts to expand telehealth services to treat a growing number of mental health patients during the pandemic, she said.

“Rural health providers, who already face deep challenges in delivering quality health care to patients, have been hit especially hard by the pandemic,” Sen. Smith said. “It’s clear that we will have to redouble our efforts to ensure that the people who live in our small towns and rural communities have access to the affordable care they need. That means expanding rural broadband, increasing the use of telehealth, and addressing the growing need for mental health services across rural America.” 

Sen. Smith said that in the past decade many rural health facilities have been forced to close and the hospitals and clinics that remain open face a shortage of health care workers who can provide needed services. Since 2010, 135 rural hospitals have closed—including 19 closures in 2020 alone—causing communities across rural America to lose access to specialists and mental health providers. 

Sen. Smith said Congress has taken bipartisan action to provide relief to people living in rural areas during this pandemic, including by:

  • Providing flexibility and higher reimbursement for rural providers who provide telehealth services.
  • Expanding funding for broadband services in rural areas.
  • Increasing federal funding through the Provider Relief Fund, the Medicare Accelerated Payments Program, and the Paycheck Protection Program. 

She said in the coming weeks she’ll push for more funding for rural clinics, and work to ensure more of the Provider Relief Fund reaches rural areas in the COVID-19 relief package currently moving in Congress.  She’ll also press to ensure non-profit critical access hospitals that are affiliated with a larger health system are eligible for pandemic relief.

Beyond her work on COVID-19 relief, Sen Smith said she’ll push to pass her bipartisan bill with Republican Senator Murkowski—the Rural MOMS Act—which would help rural health systems meet the needs of expecting families and address the high rate of maternal mortality in rural areas. 

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