The FCC unanimously approved a Notice of Inquiry on Thursday to establish a telehealth pilot program that would focus predominantly on improving access for low-income patients.
The notice (PDF), proposed by FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, would put $100 million toward funding broadband connections for low-income patients' telehealth equipment.
Fledgling telehealth programs have cropped up throughout the country, but providers are often ill-equipped to provide connectivity for the devices that make these programs work—particularly in rural areas that don't have great coverage to begin with. This notice represents the agency's interest in filling that gap.
"This is about identifying patient groups that are predominantly low-income patients, and how we support the deployment of telehealth directly to them where they are," Carr told FierceHealthcare in an interview. "There's no shortage of patient populations that could benefit from this; a lot of times they just need additional funding on the connection to get it across the finish line."
Carr said this support could take two broad forms:
- The agency could supplement connectivity efforts to areas that have insufficient coverage, such as those still depending on 3G or without cell service at all. This could take the form of funding for a new deployment or tower, but the FCC is seeking comment on that option to make sure it goes toward supporting telehealth and not just rural connectivity in general.
- In areas that do have sufficient coverage, the FCC could help fund connections to devices that low-income patients depend upon. Many telehealth programs will send patients home with a tablet or other device in order to track vital information, but those can't help much if the patients can't afford to connect them.
That said, these are just the FCC's initial visions for the program. The next step is to receive comments from stakeholders, after which the agency will draft a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. It's entirely conceivable that the outlines of the program could change based on the feedback received.
"We're not the healthcare experts, so we're really interested in understanding what are the types—from a healthcare perspective—of things we should be focused on. You know: Are there particular clinical specialties that are most amenable to benefiting from this? Are there particular types of insurance coverage plans that make the most sense from an administrative perspective to partner up with? How do we identify the right patient populations?" Carr said.
The comment date will begin 30 days after the release of this notice.