The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has received funds for another telehealth program in less than a year. An agency statement indicates that the program “would immediately support health care providers” working to thwart the COVID-19 outbreak. This would be achieved in part by supporting purchases of devices and other items needed to provide telehealth, which the Connected Health Initiative said will help drive an overdue overhaul of health care in the U.S.

The March 30 FCC statement describes the $200 million telehealth program as one that would provide eligible health care professionals with “support” to purchase telecommunication services, information services and devices needed for conducting telehealth services during the pandemic. The term of the program is limited to the end of the outbreak or exhaustion of the funds, although there is still some discussion on Capitol Hill of a fourth “coronavirus package” that could add to the COVID-19 telehealth fund. Current discussions primarily are focused on an infrastructure package proposed by President Donald Trump in a recent press briefing, however.

The COVID-19 telehealth program was preceded by the $100 million Connected Care pilot program. The previous program aimed to provide telehealth to low-income patients and veterans. Those living in areas that lack adequate health care resources also were targeted. In a July 10, 2019, statement, the agency said this program would provide an 85% discount on connectivity for broadband-enabled telehealth services, with a primary interest in providing services for those with chronic conditions. This program falls under the scope of the FCC’s existing rural health care authorities.

FAH: Rule is not necessarily copacetic

The COVID-19 telehealth program was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress and signed by the president March 27. Still, the FCC proposal has its detractors. Chip Kahn, president and CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals, said in a March 31 tweet that the exclusion of for-profit hospitals leaves many patients out of the loop. Kahn added that for-profit hospitals’ patients should not be “excluded because of hospital ownership.” He urged his followers to contact the president via Twitter and advise him of the shortcomings of the FCC proposal.

The terms of the CARES Act’s provisions for telehealth are not limited to the FCC program, however, given that other portions of the law direct the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to provide more extensive telehealth to veterans. According to a summary from the American Telemedicine Association, another benefit for telehealth is that health insurance plans may offer coverage for those with health savings accounts before enrollees meet their deductible, while audio-only telehealth receives a waiver as well.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) already had moved on telehealth prior to the passage of the CARES Act, as seen in the agency’s March 17 statement. CMS said that waivers granted under the emergency public health declarations allow coverage of “office, hospital, and other visits furnished via telehealth across the country and including in patient’s places of residence starting March 6, 2020.” The scope of these waivers encompasses a number of health care professionals, including nurse practitioners and clinical psychologists, but the rates paid for telehealth services are the same as in-person visits, assuming the same express purpose for the encounter.

CHI: 133M suffer from chronic conditions

Among those who found much to cheer about with the FCC’s announcement was Morgan Reed, executive director of the Connected Health Initiative, who said in an April 3 statement, “we strongly support the FCC’s goals of enacting telehealth programs and pilots that provide care to Americans in need during and after the COVID-19 public health emergency.” Reed said that roughly 133 million Americans suffer from “some form of chronic illness,” adding that many more are at some risk from the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen. “Our health care system requires a shift to support continuous interaction with and monitoring of patients,” Reed said.

Reed said telehealth technologies that are geared toward real-time encounters and monitoring of physiological data can overcome access hurdles for many patients. However, that’s assuming “there is access to a robust broadband network to facilitate patients sharing essential data with their caregivers from their homes.” He said that both the COVID-19 Telehealth Program and the Connected Care Pilot “represent key efforts to combat the current public health emergency, and to drive a much-needed transformation of the American health care system.”