On Monday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai pulled back the curtain on a $200 million program that would combat the COVID-19 crisis by bankrolling telecommunications equipment and services for qualifying healthcare providers.
The plan is fueled by funds appropriated in the $2 trillion CARES Act signed by Congress and President Donald Trump late last week. If approved after review by the agency's five commissioners, Pai wrote, the plan could bring additional telehealth services to more patients and provider organizations.
Our nation’s health care providers are under incredible, and still increasing, strain as they fight the pandemic," Pai said in a statement announcing the proposal. "My plan for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program is a critical tool to address this national emergency. I’m calling on my fellow Commissioners to vote promptly to adopt the draft order I circulated today, so that we can take immediate steps to provide support for telehealth services and devices to health care providers during this national crisis.”
According to the announcement, providers would need to submit a "streamlined" application to the FCC. If eligible and approved, the provider would receive full funding for applicable telehealth services and devices. The plan would have the commission awarding funds on a rolling basis until they are exhausted, or until the COVID-19 pandemic has concluded.
The FCC's announcements also included a quick update on the Connected Care Pilot Program, a $100 million initiative seeking to discount the cost of broadband-based telehealth programs for rural providers. Since voting unanimously to move forward with the program and seek public comment last summer, Pai said in a statement that he has now presented the rest of the commission with the final rules for consideration.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT?
As scalable alternatives to face-to-face care, telehealth services have found themselves thrust into the spotlight throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Major services have reported skyrocketing volumes of visits over the past couple of months, and a big-ticket government initiative to flesh out infrastructure among providers would be an even greater boost to their potential reach.
For Taqee Khaled, the head of strategy at digital consultancy Nerdery, which works with U.S. provider networks on their digital and telehealth offerings, it's the type of large-scale investment that always eluded the telehealth during healthier times.
"Prior to this pandemic, telehealth never experienced mass consumer adoption that we'd hoped to see; seeing this, healthcare systems agreed it was important, but deprioritized infrastructure investments," he told MobiHealthNews in an email comment. "The pandemic has changed all of that in an instant. Regardless of who was ready to provide telehealth, social distancing policies in effect mean that 100% of the population requires a telehealth option as the first point of contact."
Khaled said that went on to note that he would have preferred the FCC's funds to be "at least 10X larger," but was hopeful that similar efforts from other government agencies might encourage private payers to commit to similar telehealth investments.
While Pai's plan proposal would deliver telehealth funding to a variety of healthcare institution types (for example, local health departments, skilled nursing facilities, community health centers and not-for-profit hospitals), the noticeable exclusion of for-profit hospitals from its list of eligible providers drew sharp criticism from Chip Kahn, the president and CEO of The Federation of American Hospitals.
"Why would FCC in this crisis leave front-line hospitals out of the fight against #COVID19?" he wrote in a tweet. "Our patients shouldn’t be excluded because of hospital ownership. Let #realDonaldTrump know."
THE LARGER TREND
Alongside the FCC, other departments within the government's executive branch are also directing their efforts toward telehealth. Both CMS and the FDA have been gradually loosening their regulatory restrictions to support overwhelmed hospitals with remote-care options. Meanwhile the Department of Veterans Affairs has stressed telehealth and virtual-care services as the backbone of its COVID-19 response strategy.
ON THE RECORD
“I am grateful to Chairman Pai for his leadership in accelerating this important initiative and for fast-tracking a COVID-19 Telehealth Program," FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said in a statement. "This decision will further strengthen the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and help Americans access high-quality healthcare without having to visit a hospital in person."