Cantwell Bill to Drive Better Health Care, Savings in Rural Washington Passes Congress

Cantwell also secures provisions to protect access to outpatient hospital services and new, innovative cancer treatments

WASHINGTON, D.C.  – Today, legislation originally introduced by U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), along with Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and John Thune (R-SD), was passed through Congress as part of the 21st Century Cures Act. The provision makes it easier to set up networks of health care providers known as Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) in rural and medically-underserved communities.

Accountable Care Organizations, or ACOs, are groups of hospitals, doctors, and other health care providers who voluntarily join together to coordinate care for a specific patient population.  ACOs have been shown to reduce health care costs for patients, clinics and hospitals by rewarding health care providers for working together to keep patients healthy.

Doctor shortages in rural communities can make it difficult for rural health care providers to form ACOs. Cantwell’s legislation makes it easier for ACOs to thrive in rural settings and brings more coordinated health care to Medicare beneficiaries residing in communities with doctor shortages.

“Rural patients deserve access to well-coordinated health care. ACOs are a model for meeting rural communities’ needs and empowering caregivers to focus on keeping people healthy.” said Senator Cantwell. “Smart changes to how health care is delivered can simultaneously improve the patient experience, achieve better health outcomes, and make health care more affordable.”

Since 2012, Medicare-sponsored ACOs have achieved more than $1.29 billion in Medicare savings.  Fewer unnecessary medical tests and hospital trips can translate to lower co-pays for patients. 

In Washington state, the vast majority of counties are designated Health Professional Shortage Areas by the federal government. Cantwell’s provision aims to put rural communities with doctor shortages on an equal playing field with more urban and suburban communities.

Specifically, the legislation allows the Medicare program to incorporate primary care visits furnished in Federally Qualified Health Centers and Rural Health Clinics in assigning beneficiaries to Medicare’s Shared Savings Program ACO.  This change makes it easier for ACOs to get off the ground and achieve long-term success in rural communities.

Also included as part of the 21st Century Cures Act were Cantwell-backed provisions to:

  • Preserve access to routine services for patients who use Medicare at the clinics of small rural hospitals, such as Critical Access Hospitals. Washington is home to 39 Critical Access Hospitals, facilities specially designated to ensure that essential health services are provided to remote communities like Forks, Newport, and Brewster;
  • Bring life-saving new cancer treatments, like bone marrow transplants and immunotherapy, to the more convenient outpatient clinic setting;
  • Ensure that Medicare beneficiaries who require complex rehabilitative technology, such as customized wheelchair accessories, can continue to access those products; and
  • Provide more certainty for hospital-based outpatient clinics that are under construction.

Here is what health leaders across Washington state had to say:

“We thank Senator Cantwell for her work getting this provision into the 21st Century Cures Act. This legislation recognizes the doctor shortage in many Washington communities and will give more Medicare beneficiaries better access to high-quality, affordable primary care close to home,” said Bob Marsalli, Chief Executive Officer of the Washington Association of Community and Migrant Health Centers.

“The Cures bill takes important steps forward to address the unique challenges of providing health care in rural areas by maintaining access to therapy services and promoting new models of cost-effective care. Sen. Cantwell’s support is helping patients continue to get high quality health care in their local communities,” said Scott Bond, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association.