Administrator’s Blog: National Rural Health Day (November 16, 2017)

November 16, 2017

By: Seema Verma, CMS Administrator @SeemaCMS 

Today, CMS is celebrating National Rural Health Day by commemorating our partners who provide quality care to the nearly one in five Americans who reside in rural communities. CMS recognizes the unique challenges facing rural America, and we are taking action to improve access and quality for healthcare providers serving rural patients.

This fall, I have been visiting communities throughout the country to learn more about issues critical to improving access to rural healthcare. I travelled to Kansas City and visited the headquarters of the National Rural Health Association to talk with key leadership and stakeholders to hear how CMS can reduce the challenges rural communities face. CMS is committed to evaluating our policies and looking at each of them through a rural lens to ensure rural providers greater flexibility and less regulatory burden.

New technologies are emerging that have strong promise to address access issues in rural communities. CMS is trying to modernize the Medicare program so that beneficiaries can make use of the new technology. For example, CMS recently released new telehealth payment codes in Medicare so more services can be accessed in rural areas. This is only the beginning of our overall strategy to update our programs and improve access to high quality services.

Rural hospitals also face challenges in recruiting physicians. CMS is addressing this challenge by placing a two-year moratorium on the direct supervision requirement for outpatient therapeutic services at Critical Access Hospitals and small rural hospitals. This policy helps to ensure access to outpatient therapeutic services for Medicare beneficiaries living in rural communities and provides regulatory relief to America’s small rural hospitals. In Medicare Advantage plans, we are working to ensure network standards offer the flexibility needed to provide greater health care plan choices to rural beneficiaries. These reforms are in line with our focus on improving the beneficiary experience.

In response to feedback received from Critical Access Hospitals and other rural stakeholders, CMS recently announced that Critical Access Hospitals should no longer expect to receive medical record reviews related to the 96-hour certification requirement absent concerns of probable fraud, waste, or abuse. 

We are also now providing technical assistance and greater flexibilities to small and rural clinicians to help facilitate their participation in the Quality Payment Program (QPP). These efforts are aligned with our goal of reducing regulatory burden so clinicians are able to spend more time on patient care and healthier outcomes, and less time on paperwork. One way we have done this is to provide free and customized technical assistance to support small and rural clinicians every step of the way, as well as assistance through our Service Center, Regional Offices, and the QPP page on cms.gov.

We have finalized several policies to reduce burdens and help clinicians in small practices successfully participate in the QPP program. Some of these include:

  • Increasing the “low volume threshold,” which is the maximum amount of Medicare revenue and the maximum number of Medicare patients that a clinician can have while being excluded from the new requirements, to exclude more small practices from QPP.
  • Adding an option for clinicians to come together in “virtual groups” to report data together and share the burden of meeting the new requirements.
  • Continuing to award small practices a minimum of three points for quality measures, recognizing that small practices may not be able to pull together the amount of data as easily as large practices.
  • Providing small practices with a new hardship exception to some of the EHR reporting requirements.
  • Adding five bonus points to the final performance score for small practices.

In our effort to consider a new direction that promotes patient-centered care and test market-driven reforms, the CMS Innovation Center is currently seeking suggestions on improving rural healthcare by way of a recently released Request for Information (RFI). The opportunity to provide recommendations for the new direction closes November 20 and if you have not already, we hope you will share your thoughts.

CMS has also developed a number of resources to help rural providers and other stakeholders.  To improve the customer experience and further empower our rural providers, we are centralizing rural healthcare resources into a single website which you can find here.

And finally, CMS does not operate in a vacuum.  We work closely with other federal partners including the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Office of the National Coordinator, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others, to ensure our efforts to improve care in rural America are consistent with those agencies’ rural initiatives. CMS will continue to listen to, work with, and value the input from rural stakeholders.  Together, we can improve care in rural America.  Happy National Rural Health Day!

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