WHA in DC to Advocate for Rural Health Care

February 13, 2020

The Wisconsin Hospital Association joined the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative and a group of a dozen rural hospital and health care leaders in Washington, D.C. Feb. 12 to advocate for rural health care priorities with members of Wisconsin’s Congressional Delegation.

Among the topics covered were surprise medical billing, telehealth, access to behavioral health care, rural workforce challenges and funding for rural hospitals.

The day began with Congressman Ron Kind, who stepped out of his committee markup on legislation to address surprise medical bills with the group. Jim O’Keefe from Mile Bluff Medical Center reiterated how creating a benchmark rate would destroy free market negotiations by creating a ceiling that would allow insurers to tell hospitals to accept a rate below that benchmark or they would keep them out of network. He described why the legislation in the House Ways and Means Committee was a better solution, as it would protect patients while preserving free-market negotiations between insurers and providers. Congressman Kind said he agreed with these concerns and is happy to support this legislation. He added that he thought it was particularly unfair to pass legislation with a benchmark that would harm Wisconsin’s health care environment when Wisconsin already has one of the lowest rates of surprise billing in the country. The legislation passed out of the committee later that day on a unanimous vote (see article).

The rural hospital leaders also met with Congressman Mike Gallagher and discussed the need for improving how Medicare covers telehealth. Bob Van Meeteren from Reedsburg Area Medical Center mentioned legislation spearheaded by WHA recently passed the Wisconsin Legislature that would require Medicaid to cover all Medicaid telehealth services so long as they are equivalent to a face-to-face visit. The CONNECT for Health Act of 2019 would allow rural health clinics to be originating sites for telehealth services, which would allow his Medicare patients to be connected to psychiatrists in Madison via telehealth without having to make the hour drive.

The group also advocated for improving Medicare’s coverage of behavioral health services. In a meeting with Congressman Mark Pocan, Dan DeGroot and Teresa Lindfors of Stoughton Hospital discussed how their geriatric psychiatric inpatient unit does not receive the same cost-based reimbursement rates as the rest of the hospital. This payment structure means the psychiatric unit ends up losing about half of its operating margin annually, but the unit is doing everything it can to remain open because there is such a need for these services not only in Stoughton, but in the 14 other counties the facility serves. They worry the losses will continue to grow as the need for the services increases, and would like to see CMS extend cost-based reimbursement to these services as well to help stem the loss. Congressman Pocan, who toured the psychiatric unit last year, said he is interested in helping identify a legislative solution that would keep access to this much-needed care in Stoughton and other rural communities.

WHA will return to Washington, D.C. to visit with Wisconsin’s Congressional Delegation and to attend AHA’s annual meeting April 20-21. Anyone interested in joining should contact WHA Director of Federal & State Relations Jon Hoelter.

This story originally appeared in the February 13, 2020 edition of WHA Newsletter