March 19, 2020

Hassan, Shaheen Urge Federal Communications Commission To Expand Access To Telehealth Services For Rural Communities

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen joined a bipartisan group of their colleagues in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase support to health care providers through the Rural Health Care Program to help them deliver and expand telehealth services for rural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

“We write to urge the Federal Communications Commission to take immediate steps to ensure that our nation’s health care providers have the resources they need during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the senators wrote. “[W]e are writing to ask you to waive current FCC rules and help increase access to care by increasing subsidies for Rural Health Care Program participants in Funding Year 2019 during this crisis In this time of crisis, it is imperative we do our part to ensure the safety and security of our health care providers and patients.”

 

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused an immense strain on health care providers in the United States. Telehealth offers an alternative to traditional services, allowing providers to deliver quality care to patients online without risking further spread of the virus. It is also often less expensive and more efficient than traditional methods of care. By increasing the funding for subsidies available through the Rural Health Care Program, the federal government would ensure that providers receive greater resources for additional telehealth capacity or other needs during this public health emergency.

 

Congress has also supported the use of telehealth during this public health emergency through the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2020, which waives restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare during the coronavirus outbreak.

 

The full text of the letter follows. A PDF copy is available here.

 

Dear Chairman Pai:

 

We write to urge the Federal Communications Commission to take immediate steps to ensure that our nation’s health care providers have the resources they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Since 1997, the Commission has played an important role in expanding telehealth in the United States through the Rural Health Care Program.  That is why we are writing to ask you to waive current FCC rules and help increase access to care by increasing subsidies for Rural Health Care Program participants in Funding Year 2019 during this crisis.

 

Telehealth allows providers to deliver health care to patients without putting themselves at risk or requiring vulnerable patients to travel to hospitals and waiting rooms during public health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is often cheaper and more efficient than traditional health care delivery methods, allowing health care providers to have a greater impact in their communities.  For these reasons, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended health care providers use telehealth to direct patients to the right level of care for their health care needs, to conduct initial screenings of patients who may be infected with COVID-19, and to ensure that patients have access to necessary care without potentially exposing themselves by entering a hospital or physician’s office.  This is especially true for the approximately 45 million Americans age 65 and older who are at particular risk from the virus.  Congress has also supported the use of telehealth during this public health emergency through the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, which waives restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare during the coronavirus outbreak, including allowing Medicare beneficiaries to receive telehealth services in their homes.

 

The Rural Health Care Program supports telehealth at urban and rural locations to improve patient care and reduce health care costs.  The program is comprised of two parts, the Telecommunications Program, which subsidizes the difference between urban and rural rates for telecommunications services, and the Health Care Connect Fund, which provides health care providers a 65% discount on their telecommunications and broadband costs.  Although the Rural Health Care Program has encouraged investment in telehealth across the country, it is not enough, as the COVID-19 pandemic has strained our nation’s medical system and has created an increased demand for remote patient care.   Increasing the subsidies for the Rural Health Care Program participants for the 2019 funding year would allow health care providers to increase the use of telehealth services and further protect the well-being of their patients and their employees.

 

The Commission’s Rural Health Care Program has been a key aspect of increasing telehealth in the United States.  In this time of crisis, it is imperative we do our part to ensure the safety and security of our health care providers and patients.  We thank you for your attention to this matter and we urge you to take action as soon as possible.  Due to the closure of many Senate offices during the coronavirus outbreak, physical signatures are unavailable.  The listed senators have asked to be signatories to this letter.

 

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