Asks Sec. Azar for Details on Budget Request to Improve Access, Aid Troubled Rural Hospitals

U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) today reaffirmed her commitment to work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to improve rural health care and support financially-troubled rural hospitals.

Hyde-Smith, a member of the Senate Telehealth Working Group, sought details from HHS Secretary Alex Azar on how the HHS budget request for FY2021 will advance rural health care, and praised the Trump administration for including aspects of the CONNECT for Health Act in its budget plan.  Azar testified at a Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

“I am pleased the administration’s budget request includes legislative provisions from the CONNECT for Health Act to help expand telehealth at community health centers, rural health clinics and Indian Health Services facilities,” Hyde-Smith said.

“Those provisions can help improve access to care in rural areas throughout in Mississippi and across the nation,” she said.  “The most recent data just released from 2019 shows that nearly 50 percent of rural hospitals are still operating in the red.  I’m ready to help with advancing ideas to help address the crisis in access in rural America.”

Azar, who formed a HHS Rural Health Task Force to focus attention on workable solutions, testified that, “On the rural task force, we’ve now matured into the point that rural healthcare is a centerpiece of the president’s healthcare agenda and a centerpiece on the budget proposals.”

“We have many proposals in the budget.  One of them, which I’m very excited about, it would help with rural hospital closure, would allow critical access hospitals to convert to emergency facilities with an emergency room and outpatient and not have to bear the burden of continuing inpatient bed facilities, and also get payment supplements on that.  So I think that that could be a real lifeline to our rural communities if we can get that approved,” Azar said.

Related to the CONNECT for Health Act, Azar said the budget recommends expanding access to telehealth and compensation for facilities in rural America and Indian country.  He also pointed to an effort to modernize the payment system for rural health clinics “because our community health centers in rural health areas, in rural areas, can be an important backbone of our system also.”

At the hearing, Hyde-Smith also addressed changes to liver transplant policies that could affect the successful transplant program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, in addition to lowering prescription drug costs.

The Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee is expected to conduct a series of hearings in the coming weeks to review the budget requests for departments and agencies under its jurisdiction.

Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith