U.S. Senators Roy Blunt (MO.) and Mark Warner (VA.) introduced legislation to prevent further financial instability for rural health clinics and safeguard the care they provide to underserved communities. The bipartisan Strengthening Rural Health Clinics Act of 2021 would make a technical fix to protect existing rural health clinics from a sudden and unexpected Medicare payment rate change that was erroneously brought on by the December 2020 COVID-19 relief bill.

“Many Missourians rely on rural health clinics for affordable, quality care close to home,” said Blunt. “This bill will fix a technical error to protect these clinics from added financial strain on top of the challenges they’ve faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. I urge our colleagues to join us in supporting the vital role these clinics play in improving health care – and the quality of life – in rural communities.”

“In the past year, rural health clinics have played an essential role in bringing urgent and lifesaving care to some of our most vulnerable communities. Unfortunately, this crisis has served to further throw these facilities into financial distress,” said Warner. “By fixing a legislative error, our bill will help avoid further financial volatility and allow rural health clinics in Virginia and across the country to continue serving the communities that need it the most.”

The emergency COVID-19 relief bill that was signed into law in December included a provision to reform Medicare payment rates for future rural health clinics. While this provision intended to grandfather existing rural health clinics at their current payment rates in order to ensure their financial stability, a technical error ultimately excluded clinics that were established after December 2019. As a result, hundreds of rural health clinics nationwide, and even more clinics that were in the “mid-build” phase, now face serious financial uncertainty.

In order to protect these clinics from the chaos associated with a sudden payment rate change, this legislation would amend existing law to grandfather at the 2020 or first-year payment rate any qualified rural health clinic that was in existence, in “mid-build,” or that had either submitted an application or had a binding written agreement with an outside unrelated party for the construction, purchase, lease, or other establishment of such a rural health clinic prior to Dec. 31, 2020.

This legislation has the support of a number of organizations including the Missouri Hospital Association, the Missouri Rural Health Association, the Missouri Farm Bureau, the National Association of Rural Health Clinics, and the National Rural Health Association.

“In December, Congress passed significant and positive payment reforms for rural health clinics,”said Nathan Baugh, Director of Government Affairs for the National Association of Rural Health Clinics. “This legislation will ensure that all rural health clinics in existence at the time the law was changed, as well as those who were in the process of becoming a rural health clinic, are fairly grandfathered into the program.”

“Senator Blunt’s legislation is important and necessary as it allows rural hospitals that were already in the process of establishing provider-based rural health clinics to complete their planning and conversions,” said Melissa VanDyne, Executive Director of the Missouri Rural Health Association. “Missouri’s rural health infrastructure depends on these clinics to provide quality healthcare to our rural constituents and we are grateful for the senator’s efforts on this matter.”

“The Missouri Hospital Association appreciates Senator Blunt’s bipartisan leadership in sponsoring this legislation,” said Daniel Landon, Senior Vice President of Government Relations at the Missouri Hospital Association. “It will help small rural hospitals avoid being penalized by having federal rules change in the middle of a clinic development project.”

“Ever since my great aunt and uncle founded the rural hospital we still use in Appleton City, our family has known firsthand how important rural healthcare is,” said Garrett Hawkins, Missouri Farm Bureau President and farmer from St. Clair County. “It is already extremely difficult for rural providers to stay in business serving our communities, and we cannot allow a senseless error to make it any harder on them. We applaud Senator Blunt for recognizing the problem and working quickly to fix it. This legislation will ensure that our rural healthcare centers are paid fairly for the critical services they provide, helping them stay strong and continue serving rural communities.”