By Eric Wicklund, mHealth Intelligence | July 10, 2019
The Federal Communications Commission has voted to move forward with the Connected Care Pilot Program, a three-year, $100 million effort to expand telehealth and mHealth programs to benefit underserved populations, including rural residents and veterans.
The program, unveiled in July 2018 by FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, will support connected health projects designed to benefit low-income residents, particularly those living in underserved regions and veterans. It would focus on assisting healthcare providers in securing the technology and broadband resources needed to launch remote patient monitoring and telehealth programs.
With financial support from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, the program will cover as much as 85 percent of the costs of establishing and delivering broadband connectivity.
Carr said the FCC would continue to gather feedback on the program “to ensure that we target this funding to the right participants.” He said the agency is looking for comments on the costs involved in developing connected care programs, so that it will know how to best fund those projects it chooses to support.
Today’s vote of approval on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking calls for public comment on the appropriate budget, duration, and structure of the Pilot, along with other issues, including the following:
- Funding the Pilot program separately so it would have no impact on the budgets of the four existing Universal Service Programs—Lifeline, Rural Health Care, E-Rate, and High-Cost (rural broadband support).
- Who should be eligible to participate in the Pilot, including the types of eligible health care providers and broadband service providers.
- Limiting the Pilot program to health care providers serving areas with a shortage of health care professionals or with lower-income residents.
- Targeting support toward Tribal lands, rural areas, and veteran populations, for which there are well-documented health care disparities · Targeting support toward health conditions that have risen to crisis levels or affect significant numbers of Americans, such as opioid dependency, diabetes, heart disease, mental health conditions, and high-risk pregnancy.
Among those voicing approval of the program was Public Knowledge, A Washington-based non-profit advocating for open Internet access and standards.
“Telemedicine plays an increasingly important role in how health care is provided in the United States,” Phillip Berenbroick, Senior Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge, said in a press release. “The FCC is correct to acknowledge that even though telemedicine can help make health care more accessible, the lack of affordable, robust, or reliable broadband access often means patients cannot take advantage of the benefits of telehealth services.”
Berenbroick said the new program should be part of a larger federal effort to reduce broadband costs.
“Importantly, this (program) makes clear that the sky-high price of broadband not only impacts consumers’ wallets and takes a toll on their access to vital health information, but also imposes costs on their health,’ he said. “As the FCC found in its most recent International Broadband Data Report, U.S. consumers pay among the highest prices in the developed world for fixed and mobile broadband.”
“In addition to the NPRM’s worthy goal of defraying the cost of broadband to make telemedicine more accessible for patients, the FCC should address the extremely high cost of broadband in the US,” Berenbroick concluded. “Consumers often cite affordability as a leading reason why they don’t subscribe to broadband. In addition to reducing patient access to telemedicine, the high cost of connectivity also poses a barrier to economic participation, access to education, and civic engagement. The FCC should work to close the digital divide by making broadband more affordable for all.”
“Given the patient mortality rates go down by 26 percent when ICUs have telehealth services, the FCC’s Connected Care Pilots are a good start to both cut healthcare costs and get rural Americans the care they need,” Joel Thayer, policy counsel for ACT | The App Association, tweeted earlier this month when the vote was scheduled.