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Senate Bill Boosts Patient Access to Care in Rural Regions

The bill will allow skilled nursing facilities to administer care via telehealth, expanding patient access to care to rural regions.

The Senate has passed South Dakota Senator John Thune’s Rural Health Care Connectivity Act of 2015, which will now make its way toward the President’s desk. The bill, which Thune expects the President will sign, will help promote patient access to care in rural and underserved regions.

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According to a press release from Thune’s office, the Rural Health Care Connectivity Act, which was introduced early in 2015, will amend the Communications Act. This amendment will allow skilled nursing facilities to apply for financial support through the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program (RHCP).

The RHCP supports improved broadband access, which in turn will help build up telehealth capabilities in rural regions. Experts say supporting telehealth in rural areas is critical because rural areas tend to have fewer healthcare facilities. Telehealth allows  patients to access care digitally rather than having to travel great lengths to visit a provider in person.

Extending RHCP funding to skilled nursing facilities expands the number of providers who can administer care via telehealth, increasing the opportunities patients in rural regions may receive digital treatment.

“Closing the gap between the health care our rural communities are receiving and the care they deserve has been a priority of mine, and having this bill signed into law would mean that gap gets even smaller,” said Thune.

“We should be doing all we can to make it easier for healthcare professionals to connect with rural patients and provide greater support and improved services to those who need them the most. This bill would put these professionals, like those who work for skilled nursing facilities around the country, in a much better position to do so.”

The Senate Commerce Committee, of which Thune is chairman, passed the Rural Health Care Connectivity Act in November of 2015, and as of yesterday, the bill had received full Senate support, as well.

After adding a healthcare fund to the Universal Service Fund, the Federal Commerce Commission stated that it would develop a trial that would serve skilled nursing facilities. However, in 2014 the FCC claimed it did not have the authority to administer such a pilot.

This legislation creates a basis on which the government may extend patient access to care through telehealth.

Several skilled nursing facilities in rural areas have already expressed praise for the bill’s passage.

Leaders from the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society in South Dakota, which operates hundreds of skilled nursing facilities, say this bill presents opportunities for theirs and others’ organizations to help provide quality care for individuals in underserved regions.

“We commend Senator Thune and the support of other congressional leaders for the long-awaited passage of the Rural Health Care Connectivity Act of 2015,” said David J. Horazdovsky, president and CEO of Good Samaritan.

“Enactment of this bill will offer much-needed assistance to residents of Good Samaritan and other skilled nursing care centers in a variety of locations in South Dakota and in other rural areas of the country.”

Offering telehealth is an important step in boosting patient engagement and access to healthcare. The healthcare industry, which is increasingly shifting to patient-centric care models, is surely looking toward different technology-driven options to ensure providers can meet patient needs.

This means creating options, such as telehealth, to allow patients to receive care during non-traditional office hours or from providers who are located in different areas.

Allowing more providers the ability to practice via telehealth further expands the technology’s footprint, while also giving more patients the ability to receive care in hard-to-reach regions.

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