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Senators seek Medicare telehealth parity, more rural broadband

Mississippi’s two senators, Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran, both Republicans, will reintroduce legislation to extend Medicare coverage for telehealth services in medically underserved areas. Wicker, chairman of the┬áSenate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet, announced plans during a hearing Tuesday to bring up the Telehealth Advancement Act in the new Congress. […]

Mississippi’s two senators, Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran, both Republicans, will reintroduce legislation to extend Medicare coverage for telehealth services in medically underserved areas.

Wicker, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet, announced plans during a hearing Tuesday to bring up the Telehealth Advancement Act in the new Congress. The plan, which Wicker said “would help improve Medicare reimbursements and work toward payment parity,” died in committee last year.

“I hope today’s discussion will serve as an educational forum on the progress we’ve made, as well as an opportunity to identify ways we can ensure all Americans have access to these great advancements in patient care and delivery,” Wicker said in his opening remarks.

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He was particularly interested in the potential of telehealth to expand access to care in rural areas, where the majority of Mississippi’s population lives. The hearing largely focused on the limited broadband Internet capabilities in rural America. “Nationwide, more than 53 percent of Americans living in rural areas lack access to what the FCC now classifies as broadband service. Only 8 percent of Americans living in urban areas lack this technology,” Wicker said.

“Telehealth in our state is increasing access to care, improving health outcomes and lowering cost,” said one witness, Dr. Kristi Henderson, chief telehealth and innovation officer at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and director of UMMC’s Center for Telehealth.

“As we work to expand telemedcine services, we continue to run into two primary obstacles,” Henderson continued. “Reimbursement parity for telehealth services and connectivity challenges.”

Jonathan Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association, spoke in favor of the legislation, particularly language that would expand the list of those rural healthcare providers eligible for discounted broadband rates.

Other witnesses included Chris Gibbons of the Connect2HealthFCC Task Force and Panasonic’s North American CTO, Todd Rytting.