- The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday voted to approve a pilot program aimed at improving access to telehealth services for low-income people and those in rural areas.
- Commissioners adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking for the $100 million Connected Care Pilot and are seeking comment. The program would give an 85% discount on connectivity for broadband-enabled telehealth services that directly connect doctors and patients.
- FCC is asking which healthcare providers should be eligible for the three-year pilot as well as what patient populations and health conditions might be targeted.
While providers and patients have warmed to the use of telehealth for a variety of services, lack of high-speed internet connections have hampered telehealth efforts in more rural areas of the country. About one in five adults in rural areas say access to high-speed internet is a problem, according to a recent poll by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR.
About a quarter of respondents to that poll said they had used telehealth in the past few years and most said they were satisfied with their most recent experience.
Rural patients face other problems in accessing care. As many as 20% of rural hospitals are at risk of closing, according to Navigant. Nearly 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.
"If you live in a rural area, seeing a specialist can mean missing work, driving several hours — each way — and finding a local hotel if returning home the same day isn't feasible," he said. "Even worse, some patients may choose to forego necessary medical treatments just to avoid these additional costs."
The American Hospital Association lists better access to telehealth as a key component of propping up rural providers, along with reducing overhead IT costs and compliance requirements. Poor access to broadband has been a key barrier for rural providers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And lack of infrastructure was cited in a recent RAND Corporation analysis that found federally qualified health centers underuse the technology.