Time to act FAST

Time is indeed precious. As Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “If lost, it is never found again.” No one knows the critical importance of time better than those who have experienced or witnessed a stroke. According to the American Stroke Association, “time lost is brain lost.”  Because every minute that passes before a stroke patient is treated, means the death of millions of brain cells. With quick treatment, stroke patients can walk, talk and continue to lead a productive life. Without it, they can be permanently disabled, suffer from dementia, or even die.

Stroke is our nation’s No. 5 killer and a leading cause of serious, long-term disability. As the Baby Boomers turn 55 at the rate of 10,000 per day, the burden of stroke on the health care system is projected to increase significantly, with the cost of treating stroke projected to triple by 2030

We both have first-hand experience with how time can make a difference in the lives of stroke patients.

Rep. Griffith: When I was serving in the Virginia House of Delegates, one of my fellow delegates experienced a significant stroke while at an event we were attending. Fortunately, another colleague, a neurologist, realized what was happening and rushed to his aid. Our colleague received the clot-busting drug tPA and was back on the House floor within a few days.

Rep. Beatty: As a stroke survivor myself, I know the enormous impact that stroke has on patients and their families, and I have also had the opportunity to witness the tremendous benefit that swift treatment can make for stroke survivors. When it happened, I was at work and my colleagues thought that I was having a heart attack. I was lucky to be treated quickly by excellent physicians. After my stroke I had difficulty speaking and doctors thought I would not walk again. My road to recovery was long and difficult, and today I wear my high heels with pride.

Because time is so important to stroke patients, we recently introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure that all Medicare beneficiaries who suffer a stroke can have access to quick, high quality stroke care using telemedicine, now commonly called “telestroke.” Our bill, the FAST Act – the Furthering Access to Stroke Telemedicine Act (H.R. 2799) – would change an outdated provision of law that currently allows Medicare to cover a telestroke evaluation only when the patient is located at a rural hospital. Yet, 94 percent of stroke patients live in urban or suburban areas and face many of the same barriers to speedy care – lengthy travel times to a hospital, lack of available stroke specialists, and no awareness of stroke warning signs. According to the American Academy of Neurology, there is currently an 11 percent shortfall of neurologists, with that shortfall projected to increase substantially over the next decade. We believe that all Medicare beneficiaries deserve access to fast, high quality stroke treatment, regardless of where they live.

Time is of the essence for stroke victims. That is why telestroke may be part of the answer. Telestroke has proven to be very effective in increasing the speed with which patients get treatment by a stroke neurologist and also the number of patients who get tPA in both rural and urban areas. For example, a study published in 2014 concluded that urban hospitals in Illinois were able to increase the percentage of patients who received tPA by two to six times after they implemented telestroke programs. The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA) has estimated that nearly 22,000 more Medicare beneficiaries with stroke would be treated with tPA each year if the FAST Act became law.

Not only can the FAST Act increase the number of Medicare beneficiaries who receive the recommended stroke treatment, but we are also convinced that it will ultimately save Medicare and Medicaid money. Stroke patients who receive tPA are significantly less likely to need inpatient rehabilitation or nursing home care, compared to patients who do not receive this therapy. An AHA/ASA analysis has found that the FAST Act could result in $1.2 billion in net savings to Medicare and Medicaid over 10 years by reducing disability and the need for rehabilitative care.

We urge our colleagues not to waste any more time and join us as co-sponsors of the FAST Act. This is a win-win for stroke victims, their families, and for Congress: We can improve the lives of countless future stroke survivors and their families and create greater efficiencies in health care spending.

Griffith has represented Virginia’s 9th Congressional District since 2011. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Beatty has represented Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District since 2013. She sits on the Financial Services Committee.