FCC approves telemedicine pilot for veterans, low-income, rural Americans

By Laura Lovett
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Veterans as well as rural and low-income Americans may have more access to telemedicine in the future after the FCC unanimously voted to approve a proposal establishing a “Connected Care Pilot Program” on . The next step for the pilot, which is estimated to cost $100 million, is a comment period. 

“Broadband-enabled telehealth services like these can significantly improve Americans’ health and reduce costs for patients and health care providers alike,” Ajit Pai, FCC chairman, said in a statement. “But many low-income consumers, especially those in rural areas, lack access to affordable broadband and may not be able to realize these benefits. That’s why we’re launching an initiative to figure out how the FCC can support the delivery of connected care services to low-income Americans.

"Specifically, we’re exploring a program to promote the use of broadband-enabled telehealth services among low-income families and veterans, with a focus on services delivered directly to patients beyond the doors of brick-and-mortar health care facilities. We’re asking for public input on the goals of, and statutory authority for, this 'Connected Care' pilot program as well as how best to design the pilot program.”

When the proposal was first announced by FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr and Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) in an op-ed published in the  in July, the pair said a major goal of the program was to reduce the hospital readmission rate. 

“Telemedicine is no longer just about enabling connectivity among traditional brick-and-mortar healthcare facilities,” the officials wrote in the op-ed.  “The trend is towards connected care everywhere. Remote patient monitoring and mobile health applications that Americans can access on their smartphones or tablets while at home or work are part of a new and seamless way of delivering cost-effective, direct-to-consumer healthcare.”

In a release announcing the vote, the FCC said the remote monitoring could come in the form of a smartphone, tablet, or other device. The pilot would give people in the target demographic broadband, which has traditionally been one of the obstacles in providing this demographic with telemedicine care. 

But there are still a lot of questions about what the program will look like. Right now the FCC is seeking comments on the goals of the pilot program. The agency is also asking for input on its design in terms of budget, application process, criteria requirements, broadband providers, and more. Lastly, officials are also looking for feedback on how to measure the effectiveness of the project. 

Proponents of the pilot say the program has many cost-saving potentials. Carr cited examples of other remote patient monitoring programs that have saved money in the past, including a VA Health Administration remote monitoring program that cost $1,600 per patient compared to $13,00 for traditional care. 

“Given the significant cost savings and improved patient outcomes associated with connected care, we should align public policy in support of this movement in telehealth,” Carr said in a statement. 

Pai has been a vocal supporter of telemedicine. In May he teamed up with former commissioner Newton N. Minow to write and op-ed in the Boston Globe stressing the benefits of rural telemedicine, and specifically the importance of high-speed internet in rural communities and interstate licensing compacts to make sure all communities can benefit. 

The US government has been increasingly looking to telemedicine programs as the way of the future. For example, in May the Department of Veterans Affairs finalized its federal rule, which allows providers to deliver patient care across state lines and outside of a VA facility using telemedicine. 

On the executive level, the Trump administration has pledged to allow for the expansion of telemedicine services, specifically looking to treat people with opioid addiction.