It’s no secret: Rural communities face many unique challenges, and the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gap. In Central Washington, we are proud of our way-of-life and the systems we have built, but there are key investments we must make to ensure our citizens are not disadvantaged. Since being elected to Congress, it has been my priority to increase access to affordable healthcare for our rural communities, as limited numbers of healthcare providers and facilities have restricted our ability to provide immediate, emergency, and even preventative care.
As social distancing and remote technology have come to dominate our day-to-day lives, rural communities have been further disadvantaged. While the technology infrastructure in urban areas has made the personal-to-virtual transition fairly smooth, many citizens in rural areas are often left behind. Without access to high-speed Internet, broadband, or sometimes even a cell phone signal, our rural communities have difficulties conducting the business of life.
Because of these barriers, patients are traveling more than 100 miles to receive the care they need. This not only creates undue hardship on families in need of healthcare services, but the data has shown for some time that rural Americans are more likely to die from preventable, leading causes than those who live in urban areas.
One solution to this problem is an expansion of telehealth services. Telehealth takes a number of innovative forms, from virtual video appointments with doctors to remote patient monitoring. Remote patient monitoring (RPM) allows for doctors to collect important health data from a distance. By utilizing devices such as blood pressure cuffs, glucometers, scales, etc., healthcare providers can collect real-time data. That means rural patients will no longer have to travel prohibitive distances to be treated for minor or routine services, and they will still receive the care they need.
Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of this approach is that all of this can be accomplished by operating at low frequencies such as 2G cellular connectivity – a crucial component for improving access in rural areas where broadband service is limited.
To help advance the development and implementation of this technology, I introduced H.R.7190, the Increasing Rural Health Access During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Act. This bipartisan bill would create a pilot grant program within the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to expand opportunities for investment in telemedicine and RPM technology in rural areas. This bill would make telehealth a reality in many of our rural communities in Central Washington and I am hopeful that the House will promptly take action.
In addition, the Trump Administration is taking action to preserve the telemedicine benefits that have been realized throughout this public health emergency. President Trump signed an Executive Order, Improving Rural Health and Telehealth Access, on August 3, 2020, to make permanent many of the modifications made throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The Executive Order will adjust Medicare rules that previously posed unnecessary barriers to implementing telehealth services and incentivize rural healthcare providers to invest in telemedicine infrastructure.
Bureaucracy should never be an excuse to not provide the best level of care possible to our citizens, and I applaud the President for taking this common-sense step to increase healthcare access for our rural communities.
As we begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we will ultimately be faced with decisions about how to best restore and rebuild our nation. I firmly believe that when it comes to our healthcare system, we have an answer in telehealth. This crisis has given us an opportunity to emerge with a stronger, more accessible healthcare system, and telehealth is an investment worthy of our long-term commitment.