At the recently concluded Connected Health Conference in Boston, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai delivered a keynote speech expressing his agency’s dedication to expanding federal funding for key telehealth initiatives, along with a few new proposals for accomplishing them.
The goal of the expanded funding, Pai said in his keynote speech, is to help ensure rural communities are able to access essential healthcare services via technology-enabled healthcare delivery models like remote patient management.
“Our thinking is that patients would benefit from services delivered directly in their homes — such as sensor-based remote monitoring — instead of just brick-and-mortar health care facilities,” Pai remarked, per the official FCC transcript. “We’re looking at a proposed $100 million budget for this so-called ‘Connected Care Pilot Program,’ and we are seeking public input on how best to design it.”
Funding for these telehealth initiatives was a central focus of Pai’s speech. This year saw the agency increase by 43 percent a decades-old spending cap for the rural healthcare program — a cap that hadn’t been updated since the program’s inception in 1997, even for inflation, Pai explained.
In 2016, “demand for this funding began to exceed the Program’s spending cap,” he continued. “That is hardly a surprise when you consider the program was established in 1997 during the days of dial-up, and its funding limit had never increased, not even for inflation.”
The new funding levels reflect where the cap “would have been if it had been adjusted for inflation from the beginning,” he added. “Speaking of, we’re giving providers more certainty by adjusting the cap annually for inflation and allowing any unused funds from prior years to be carried forward to future years.”
New Telehealth Initiatives a ‘Personal Mission’ for FCC Chairman
Pai also explained how his goal to expand telehealth funding is also “a personal mission, not just a professional one,” describing how the medical profession required his father to spend a significant amount of time on the road when Pai was young.
“When I was a kid in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my dad, a urologist in the small town of Parsons, Kansas, would often hit the road,” he said. “He would drive long distances across southeast Kansas to make sure that patients in even smaller surrounding communities could see a specialist who could help them. Even now, I’m amazed at the time he spent on the road.”
But times have changed, he notes, and “it’s becoming harder to recruit doctors to serve rural communities. It’s becoming harder to keep rural hospitals afloat. And so it’s becoming harder for many rural patients to get healthcare — ironically, at a moment when vital signs for those patients and rural America generally are suggesting trouble.”
To help meet this challenge, Pai outlined a number of new FCC proposals, including:
- A new focus on expanding remote patient monitoring technology into the homes of rural patients
- A partnership with the National Cancer Institute to create “Launch,” a cancer-focused telehealth initiative
- An expansion of the agency’s efforts to innovate ways to leverage telehealth to fight the nation’s opioid epidemic
Will the Repeal of Net Neutrality Help or Hurt Rural Telehealth Initiatives?
Though industry groups have generally applauded the FCC’s efforts to expand telehealth funding, some of their methods have also drawn skepticism and outright criticism. Pai himself has come under fire for the tone of the agency’s 2017’s campaign to eliminate Obama-era net neutrality safeguards, in which he played a central, and very public, role.
Pai and his administration have contended that removing those net neutrality rules — or the principle that Internet access providers must give equal bandwidth to all online sources, and cannot “throttle speeds” or block specific content — will help ensure that rural patients get the care they need, when they need it.
“With Internet-enabled healthcare apps and services, paid prioritization could be the difference between life and death for patients who require very reliable and fast connectivity for health monitoring, consultation, and service delivery,” an FCC spokesperson told Modern Healthcare in a 2017 look at what net neutrality’s repeal may mean for telehealth.
“Chairman Pai's proposals would unleash innovation and investment in networks, providing better connectivity for rural and underserved hospitals and reducing costs everywhere,” the spokesperson added.
Yet many healthcare advocates have argued otherwise, as Rachel Z. Arndt, the writer of the Modern Healthcare article, points out. Potentially leading to “prohibitively high” costs for Internet access, net neutrality’s repeal “could exacerbate health disparities between high- and low-income people and between people in urban and rural areas,” she writes.
“If net neutrality rules are repealed, larger healthcare organizations may fare better than smaller ones,” she adds, which doesn’t bode well for smaller community health centers that serve rural communities. Such community-based clinics may “not have the resources to pay for a fast connection in a tiered system,” she notes, quoting from a Center for Connected Health Policy statement.
Learn more about how remote patient monitoring can help your facility extend care in your community: Contact Care Innovations® today to schedule a complimentary, one-on-one consultation with one of our telehealth experts.