As Demand for Telehealth/Telemedicine Services Skyrockets, CARES Act and FCC Allocate Millions of Dollars to Address Needs

With the USAC’s June 30 filing deadline on the horizon, Communications Service Providers should take note of potential increases in demand for telehealth equipment and services related to Federal emergency funding passed in response to the COVID-19 virus. Many health providers and government agencies will be seeking to expand their telehealth capacity in the near future.

On March 27th, in the face of the unprecedented social and business disruption, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) into law. Among the sweeping provisions of the $2 trillion dollar stimulus are measures targeted to expand and strengthen American access to telehealth. In this period of quarantine and social distancing, patient remote health access has taken on special importance.

The CARES Act funds expansion of telehealth facilities while removing legal obstacles to existing service capabilities. On March 26th, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, noting that “telemedicine has never been more important to our nation’s healthcare system,” congratulated Congress on its decision to include telehealth measures in the law and highlighted the $42 million dollar expansion of telehealth capabilities through the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program.

The rural health funding expansion described in that letter is separate from the $200 million in additional funding the CARES Act granted to the FCC for rural telehealth purposes.  The rapid action by multiple Federal agencies underscores the increasingly important role which rural clinics and health providers are to play in remote patient services under the Act

Chairman Pai has outlined a longer-term plan for putting the new funds to use under a new Connected Care Pilot Program. Not only will the FCC provide immediate financial assistance to hospitals and other health care providers purchasing telehealth services and equipment, it will seek through the new program to integrate telehealth funding into the Universal Service Fund infrastructure on a permanent basis. The FCC plans to allocate $100 million over the next three years to telehealth in the form of access to USF resources to defray operating expenses. The program gives special emphasis to ensuring telehealth access for veterans and low-income Americans.

Other CARES Act procedural changes include allowing some qualified providers to conduct hospice recertification through telehealth, and allowing High-Deductible Health Plans with Health Savings Accounts to extend coverage to telehealth service costs. Furthermore, the law calls upon the Department of Health and Human Services to promulgate expanded rules concerning remote patient health monitoring and guidance encouraging greater use of telehealth services during the term of the emergency.

The Act also pushes more than $16 billion into the Veterans Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand telehealth access and provide for purchases of equipment, supplies, and training related to long-distance health care as well as conventional medical services. Targeted funding supports DVA purchases of expanded facilities and devices to increase bandwidth and digital capacity as well as giving veterans access to short-term discounted broadband services.

Through a combination of emergency measures and long-term improvements, the FCC is leading efforts to integrate telehealth into the broad spectrum of communications access which the government guarantees to consumers, while supporting and improving the abilities of American healthcare providers to offer those services in an economical and patient-oriented fashion.

Contact Linda G. McReynolds at lgm@commlawgroup.com for further guidance or assistance taking advantage of the programs established to address the telehealth demands presented by the Coronavirus Crisis.

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