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Michael Petruzzelli

, National Council for Behavioral Health

New Rural Health Bill Expands Access to Care under Medicare

October 13, 2016 | Medicare | Workforce | Comments
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A new bill introduced by Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) would provide a robust and comprehensive answer to a myriad of issues facing health care access in rural communities. Among its many provisions including grant reauthorization and provider trainings, the bill – the Craig Thomas Rural Hospital and Provider Equity Act (R-HoPE) – would expand the eligible provider pool by allowing marriage and family therapists (MFTs) and licensed mental health counselors to directly bill Medicare for their services. These provisions are identical to a longtime National Council legislative priority and 2016 Hill Day ask – the Mental Health Access Improvement Act of 2015 (S. 1830/H.R. 2759).

The National Council has long supported legislation to allow these two types of professionals to bill Medicare directly for their services. With 77 percent of U.S. counties experiencing a severe shortage of behavioral health professionals, over 80 million Americans live in areas that lack sufficient providers. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, fully half of all U.S. counties have no practicing psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers. Many of these rural and underserved areas without any current Medicare providers do have practicing MFTs and/or mental health counselors, including counselors who have been trained and licensed to provide addiction services.

Allowing previously ineligible providers to directly bill Medicare for their services would immediately alleviate the strain on our nation’s mental health and addiction workforce serving Medicare enrollees. These provisions would not change the Medicare mental health benefit or modify states’ scope of practice laws but would instead allow Medicare enrollees access to medically necessary covered services provided by mental health and addiction professionals who are properly trained and licensed to deliver such services.

The R-HoPE Act (S. 3435) is a robust and comprehensive legislative initiative aimed at tackling a number of issues in rural health care. The National Council applauds Senator Roberts for the inclusion of provisions to expand access to behavioral health care for those in rural communities.