Patients all over the country will have more access to sophisticated stroke care and cardiac rehabilitation after heart attacks, under new legislation.

The American Heart Association advocated for the provisions in a two-year budget deal signed into law Friday.

Under the legislation, the Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine, or FAST Act, would require Medicare to reimburse hospitals for telestroke services nationwide, regardless of where a patient lives.

Telestroke uses digital video, smartphones and other communications so neurologists can provide patients with specialized diagnosis and treatment options from anywhere.

“The opportunity for reimbursement will now permit even more hospitals to afford and receive telestroke patient services and potentially provide ongoing continuity of care,” said Dr. Lee Schwamm, who was involved in writing the FAST Act and has testified before Congress on behalf of the AHA.

“This strengthens the stroke system of care, and makes it possible for dramatic improvements in health outcomes for patients all across the country,” Schwamm said.

The legislation also makes it easier for patients to access cardiac rehabilitation programs after a heart attack. This is a critical step in recovery, yet only one in three survivors report participating in these programs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now, however, access to cardiac rehabilitation services will be expanded so physician assistants, nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists can supervise these services.

George A. Herron, manager of the Cardiac Fitness Institute in Ogden, Utah, said patients in his rural community are often left with little or no resources following their cardiac event.

“It’s more important than ever that all heart patients get the professional help they need,” he said.

George A. Herron at the U.S. Capitol in November 2017, lobbying for cardiac rehabilitation. (Photo courtesy of George A. Herron)

George A. Herron at the U.S. Capitol in November 2017, lobbying for cardiac rehabilitation. (Photo courtesy of George A. Herron)

Lastly, provisions in the bill repeal arbitrary Medicare payment caps for outpatient therapy services. Caps would have seriously limited treatment options for millions of Americans.

“When patients need therapy and it’s medically necessary, having a cap on it limits their recovery and ability to possibly reintegrate into the community,” said Dr. Barbara Lutz, a professor specializing in the study of stroke care at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

The AHA plans to work with the administration and lawmakers to implement the provisions.

“Several significant barriers for Americans with heart disease and stroke have finally been removed with the passage of this legislation,” AHA CEO Nancy Brown said in a statement. “We hope to find more health care strategies like these to help wipe out the burden of heart disease and stroke.”

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the world. Stroke ranks second, and is a leading cause of disability.

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