5 objectives in CMS’s rural health strategy

CMS has released the agency’s first strategy to address the challenges for rural health providers, with goals ranging from reviewing quality measures which may not be valuable to rural physicians and patients to expanding the use of telehealth services.

“For the first time, CMS is organizing and focusing our efforts to apply a rural lens to the vision and work of the agency,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma, MPH, said in a statement. “The Rural Health Strategy supports CMS’s goal of putting patients first. Through its implementation and our continued stakeholder engagement, this strategy will enhance the positive impacts CMS policies have on beneficiaries who live in rural areas.”

Here are the five main objectives outlined in the eight-page document and how CMS may act on them:

1. Apply a rural lens to CMS programs and policies

CMS has been criticized in the past for not considering the impact on rural providers when formulating its regulations—especially when it comes to health IT. This new strategy would direct the agency to “integrate consistent consideration” of rural needs in its policies, especially quality improvement programs.

2. Improve access to care through provider and support

Rural patients face some of the toughest challenges on accessing care for a variety of reasons. The CMS strategy would focus on several activities to get over these barriers, like how to increase the number of licensed and trained health professionals in rural areas, reducing the quality reporting burden on rural providers, providing additional technical assistance to rural organizations and finding ways to cover transportation services through Medicare and Medicaid models.

3. Advance telehealth and telemedicine

A key component to increasing access to care in rural areas is providing more care through telehealth, especially specialty care. CMS said it’s heard from rural stakeholders that several barriers slowing the growth of telehealth need to be addressed, such as reimbursement and licensure across state lines. More Medicare and Medicaid model experiments may be part of the solution.

4. Empower patients in rural communities to make decisions about their health care

In line with CMS’s broader goals of pushing consumerism, the strategy document said rural patients need help understanding their insurance coverage and navigating the healthcare system, but may need to be engaged differently than urban or suburban patients.

“Patient and family engagement is an essential part of fostering responsibility and partnership in a person’s health care, so CMS will leverage existing rural communication networks to empower patients and families with the information and tools they need to be actively engaged in their health care and strengthen their patient-provider relationships,” CMS said.

5. Leverage partnerships to achieve the goals of the strategy

The first collaborations suggested by the document would be inside HHS, such as working on better rural provider interoperability with the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT and better integration of behavioral health and primary care with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.