- Stakeholders from the healthcare and technology sectors — including players like the American Hospital Association, the American Physical Therapy Association and Verizon — submitted comments to the Federal Communications Commission overwhelmingly supporting its rural telehealth pilot, with many advising broader eligibility requirements for healthcare providers. The comment period closed Thursday.
- The AHA and the Connected Health Initiative (CHI), a stakeholder group composed primarily of tech companies, academics and providers, including Intel and the American Heart Association, told the FCC it should support the use of innovative technologies, end-user devices and software platforms in addition to broadband connectivity and network equipment to optimize care for rural patients. But other groups, like the American Physical Therapy Association, said end-user devices shouldn't be included because they would drive up costs by encouraging purchases of a higher level of service or equipment than needed.
- Verizon said the FCC should give support directly to healthcare providers instead of to service providers because that system would "require service providers to develop a new billing process for a temporary program with a handful of customers."
The FCC in July voted to approve a three-year $100 million pilot program aimed at improving access to telehealth services for low-income people and those in rural areas. The program would give an 85% discount on connectivity for broadband-enabled telehealth services that directly connect doctors and patients.
Lack of high-speed internet connections in rural areas has been a persistent barrier to broader adoption of telehealth services. Although a quarter of respondents to a recent poll by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR said they had used telehealth in the past few years and were mostly satisfied with their most recent experience, about one in five adults in rural areas also said access to high-speed internet is a problem.
Rural patients face other problems in accessing care. As many as 20% of rural hospitals are at risk of closing, according to Navigant. More than 100 such facilities have shuttered in the past decade. When a hospital does close, nearby residents can find themselves without easy access to care, an issue FCC Chairman Ajit Pai noted in a statement on the telehealth pilot's approval.
A majority of those commenting on the proposal warned the FCC against limiting the types of providers eligible to participate. Broadening eligibility of healthcare providers "will ensure that the Commission can evaluate the broadest range of proposals and ideas, after which it can make an informed decision in awarding pilot projects," CHI said. Similarly, AHA said the FCC "should encourage participation by a diverse pool of applicants without limitations on applicant size or geographic location."
Verizon suggested the FCC consider adopting a lower discount than the 85% factor proposed in the notice of proposed rulemaking, such as the 65% discount used in the Healthcare Connect program to maximize the number of projects that can be funded within the $100 million budget.
CHI also recommended each pilot program be fully funded and allowed adequate flexibility, and that data collected from each program be used to analyze how technologies such as AI can be used to improve remote care outcomes.