FCC chief unveils $200M program to boost telehealth services amid COVID-19 outbreak

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai wants to use $200 million from the economic stimulus package to expand telehealth services across the country.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last week, earmarks the funds for the FCC to help healthcare providers offering telehealth.

The COVID-19 Telehealth Program, which Pai proposed as a draft order Monday, would have to be approved by the commission before launching.

Pai said the program will provide immediate support to healthcare providers using virtual care in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

"As we self-isolate and engage in social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth will continue to become more and more important across the country. Our nation’s health care providers are under incredible and still increasing, strain as they fight the pandemic," Pai said in a press release.

If adopted by the commission, the program would offer qualified healthcare providers full funding to buy “telecommunications services, information services and devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services during this emergency period.”

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The use of telehealth services is surging as the coronavirus outbreak expands across the country. Private companies like Teladoc and Amwell have reported massive spikes in visit volume. Teladoc is averaging 15,000 patient visits a day in the U.S., 50% higher than in February. Amwell has seen a 350% increase from the normal expected volume of calls this time of year. 

Many hospitals and physician practices are ramping up their own telehealth services to continue caring for patients while limiting exposure to the virus from face-to-face patient encounters.

The new  COVID-19 Telehealth Program won't benefit for-profit hospitals, according to Chip Kahn, president and CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals.

In a tweet, Khan said Pai's proposed program "leaves millions of patients without access to vital telehealth."

"The FCC shouldn’t be choosing some patients over others by excluding tax paying hospital care. FCC action threatens lives. Let #realDonaldTrump know," Kahn tweeted.

Pai also circulated final rules for a pilot program that would steer $100 million of its universal service funds over three years toward providers to help cover telehealth costs,

The Connected Care Pilot Program, proposed in 2018, is a broader, longer-term initiative to support telehealth and remote patient monitoring services to improve healthcare access to underserved populations.

In July 2019, FCC commissioners voted to adopt a notice of proposed rule-making (PDF) calling for public comment on testing the new program.

Pai proposed final rules for the Connected Care Pilot Program on Monday to move that initiative forward. He said the program could be a broader study on how connected care can be permanently integrated into the universal service fund.

The CARES Act also includes many provisions to lift barriers for providing telehealth services and relaxed guidelines for Medicare coverage.

The $2 trillion relief package loosened many restrictions, which paved the way for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to announce Monday that it will begin paying physicians for virtual visits that take place by audio telephone only.

Under the law, Federally Qualified Health Centers and rural health clinics can serve as distant sites for telehealth during the COVID-19 emergency period.

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The CARES Act also provides $14.4 billion to support increased demand for healthcare services at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities and through telehealth, including the purchase of medical equipment and supplies, testing kits and personal protective equipment.

The law helps eliminate barriers to full-scale adoption and will provide much needed support to healthcare providers who are migrating patients to virtual care platforms to reduce exposure to COVID-19, Ann Mond Johnson, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), said.

“We believe the bill reflects the scale of challenges we face as a country and recognizes that expanding virtual care is necessary to defeat COVID-19,” Johnson said. “We commend Congress for recognizing the power of telehealth, and the bipartisan effort to lift telehealth barriers in the Medicare program while prioritizing federal funding for telehealth access and infrastructure during this emergency.”

The ATA offers a summary of key telehealth provisions in the CARES Act on its website.