Spanberger, Johnson Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Fund FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program, Continue Delivery of Critical Healthcare Services to Rural Communities

The COVID-19 Telehealth Program Extension Act Would Provide an Additional $200 Million for the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program, Which Ran Out of Funding Earlier this Month

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Representatives Abigail Spanberger (D-VA-07) and Dusty Johnson (R-SD-AL) today led the introduction of bipartisan legislation to maintain critical telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic and provide much-needed funding to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) COVID-19 Telehealth Program.

Demand for telehealth services is skyrocketing amid the pandemic. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), prior to the public health emergency, approximately 13,000 fee-for-service Medicare beneficiaries received telemedicine per week. But in the final week of April 2020, nearly 1.7 million beneficiaries received telehealth services. Expanded use of telehealth has enormous potential to improve disparities in access to healthcare and health outcomes in rural areas, undeserved communities, and for many minority populations.

In April 2020, the FCC established the COVID-19 Telehealth program to support healthcare providers’ provision of telehealth services needed to prevent, prepare for, and respond to the COVID-19 crisis. However, last month, the FCC announced that it would stop accepting applications for awards. And earlier this month, the FCC announced that all approved funding had been distributed, meaning many eligible providers and telehealth projects are no longer able to apply for or receive federal support.

To give providers the ability to maintain telehealth services, the COVID-19 Telehealth Program Extension Act would provide an additional $200 million in funding for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. This funding level is equal to the amount initially passed by Congress through the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act earlier this year.

“During a public health crisis, families, seniors, and veterans need to have reliable access to their doctors and caregivers. Telehealth has provided a solution for thousands of Central Virginians to receive the high-quality care they need, while still taking precautions to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19,” said Spanberger. “Telehealth has clearly demonstrated its importance and its popularity during the pandemic, and our COVID-19 Telehealth Program Extension Act recognizes the role this technology should continue to play as we see a resurgence of the virus in communities across the country. I’d like to thank my friend and colleague Congressman Johnson for joining me in introducing this pressing legislation, and I look forward to moving this legislation forward and making sure rural patients and providers aren’t left behind.”

“South Dakota has seen the benefits of expanding telehealth firsthand,” said Johnson. “It’s easy, it’s quick, and it protects vulnerable populations seeking health care during this worldwide health crisis. South Dakota patients deserve quality care and our bill would provide the resources needed to strengthen additional telehealth programs in South Dakota and across the country.”   

Earlier this week, Spanberger and Johnson led a 41-Member, bipartisan effort calling on the FCC to provide greater certainty and support to healthcare providers standing up telehealth services through the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program.

The Spanberger-Johnson legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Representatives Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA-32), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-01), Jamie Raskin (D-MD-08), and Peter Welch (D-VT-AL).

The COVID-19 Telehealth Program Extension Act is supported by several Central Virginia healthcare providers and community-focused organizations.

“Like many institutions across the nation, at the inception of the COVID-19 pandemic, VCU Health System’s telehealth program responded by growing at warp speed.  From March to June 2020, we experienced an average increase in telehealth visits of over 7,000%; this growth was made possible by a number of immediate institutional investments, to include expansion of telehealth platforms, remote monitoring devices, tablets, and other technology. Unfortunately, despite applying for FCC grant funding in April, we have not yet received notice of an award and have recently learned that available federal funds have been exhausted,” said Dr. Peter Buckley, Interim CEO – VCU Health System, Interim Sr. Vice President — VCU Health Sciences, Dean — VCU School of Medicine. “Representative Spanberger astutely recognizes the radical shift in care delivery that will be with us through the duration of this crisis and beyond, and we are grateful for her sponsorship of this legislation.”

“COVID-19 has put the spotlight on the healthcare and technology inequities that restrict the quality of life for rural Americans,” said Beth O’Connor, Executive Director, Virginia Rural Health Association. “This legislation will serve to fill some of the gaps for the 34 million Americans who still lack access to adequate broadband.”

“The Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics commends Representative Spanberger for introducing this important bill. The critical additional funding it provides to the FCC Telehealth Program would help free clinics stand up robust telehealth programs, including remote patient monitoring, and thereby increase access to primary health care for vulnerable populations,” said Rufus Phillips, CEO, Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics. “By bolstering the ability of the clinics to acquire telehealth technology, this bill would also enable them to more safely and effectively provide care to the underserved during the pandemic and help prevent the further spread of COVID-19 — especially among the African American and Latino communities that are being hit disproportionately hard by the virus.”

“With regard to assistance with Telehealth and FCC grants, CHCs are the front-line point of care for at-risk, vulnerable people, minorities, and essential workers. Telehealth became an important tool in caring for patients during the pandemic.  Our patients benefited because it helped eliminate the transportation barrier many face unfortunately many struggled to access it for lack of resources to data signals or broadband access,” said Paula Tomko, CEO, Central Virginia Health Services, Inc. “As a result the most vulnerable often had to choose to go without healthcare or risk face-to-face visits when sheltering in place was widely recommended. To care for these individuals, especially during an historic viral pandemic, CHC telehealth services must be sustainable over the long-term. Our FCC application was to help us provide strong wireless access points for patients to use for telehealth visits with us in the parking lot to help reduce risk of infection to both staff and patients. In addition we were trying to acquire telemedicine equipment to help patients with follow-up appointments with specialty appointments with the larger health systems like UVA and VCU. In order for this to be sustainable FQHC’s, like CVHS-Louisa internet access needs to be readily available and reimbursement for Federally Qualified Health Centers needs to be allowed permanently, not just during a health crisis. That will help provide opportunities to improve equity in the health system.”

“We applaud Congresswoman Spanberger’s leadership in the fight against COVID-19 through the support of the deployment of telehealth solutions to address the needs of Americans living in rural communities,” said Adam Hardage, CEO, Remote Health Solutions, Midlothian, VA. “The Congresswoman’s supplemental appropriation legislation in support of the COVID–19 Telehealth Program at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an important step towards further adoption of telehealth in Virginia and other states. Telehealth solutions, and more specifically telemedicine kits that can remotely diagnose COVID-19 symptoms without a doctor needing to be present, are an important part of the solution to help stop the spread of the virus.”

“As Virginia’s long-term care facilities remain on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle, we’re proud to support legislation introduced by Rep. Spanberger that would improve access to critical services for our residents,” said Keith Hare, President & CEO, Virginia Health Care Association-Virginia Center for Assisted Living. “Increasing funding for the COVID-19 telehealth program authorized by the CARES Act would help alleviate some of the strain on our facilities while we continue to implement strict precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Given what we know about the voracious nature of the virus and asymptomatic carriers, improving access to telehealth services for long-term care residents will ultimately help protect the most vulnerable in our society by limiting outside exposure.”

“The rising importance of telehealth services is particularly important in our rural areas,” said Rick Shinn, Director of Government Affairs, Virginia Community Healthcare Association. “We applaud Rep. Spanberger and her colleagues on moving forward to bring telehealth services into the mainstream of healthcare.”

Additionally, the COVID-19 Telehealth Program Extension Act is supported by several South Dakota healthcare organizations.

“Avera Health greatly appreciates Congressman Johnson’s and Congresswoman Spanberger’s support of telehealth through this bill, which will appropriate additional funds to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC’s) Wireline Competition Bureau’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program,” said Danielle Hamann, Director of Public Policy, Avera Health. “This program is essential for expanding the number of patients that can be served through telehealth at one time.  Rural health care services are typically provided by a small community of physicians, emergency nurses, and specialty providers who serve the medical needs of local and area residents. Telehealth can help extend resources when demand puts a strain on local resources. Telehealth adds support to providers and patients with chronic illnesses, who are considered high-risk for developing severe cases of COVID-19. Support of patients with chronic illnesses can be accomplished through collaborating with local partners to provide remote patient monitoring and support of individuals living in skilled nursing facilities or in their own home.  This in-home supportive care reduces risk of exposure to COVID-19 while seeking health care. Through the enhanced telehealth access funded by the Wireline Competition Bureau’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program, access to collegial support will be available for local providers in a variety of situations, such as when patient numbers surge, when providers are busy seeing patients elsewhere, or when local facilities are temporarily short-staffed.”

“Our coalition of Community Health Centers (CHCs) across South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming, called the Great Plains Health Data Network, were excited to receive $443,417 to support telehealth and technology-enabled health care from the Federal Communications Commission. Community Health Centers (CHCs), like many health care providers, were asked to dramatically shift their approach to health care in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Shelly Ten Napel, CEO, Community HealthCare Association of the Dakotas. “At our peak, about 45 percent of health care visits across health centers in the Dakotas were conducted using telehealth technology. Resources from the FCC will enable us to continue to use technology to meet patients where they are, utilize best practices for supporting preventive and coordinated care, and to keep patients safe during the pandemic.” 

The Spanberger-Johnson legislation is also supported by many national healthcare organizations.

“We support this legislation, as telehealth provides much-needed flexibility for long term care providers during this pandemic,” said Kim Zimmerman, Vice President, American Health Care Association. “This bill will allow providers to accelerate the use of technology and systems that can help provide care during this challenging time.”

“Once the COVID-19 pandemic began, health centers throughout the country quickly pivoted to telehealth to continue providing care to patients. The FCC COVID-19 Telehealth Program served as an incredibly helpful resource for those health centers that received funding to maintain and sustain their telehealth programs for their patients and their communities; however, many health centers that were eligible and applied for funding did not end up receiving a grant to support their telehealth program,” said Steve Carey, Chief Strategy Officer of the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC). “We are so grateful for the leadership of Representative Spanberger and Johnson for introducing legislation to provide an additional $200 million for the FCC COVID-19 Telehealth Program – this will provide much needed support for those health centers that did not receive a grant before initial funds were exhausted.”

“Remote Area Medical (RAM) is deeply grateful to Rep. Spanberger and Johnson for introducing this bill,” said Caroline DeBerry, Chief External Affairs Officer, Remote Area Medical. “As the pandemic reached the United States, RAM recognized how important telehealth would become and quickly launched a new free telehealth program to continue our mission of helping those who need it most. Building a strong, resilient telehealth program takes funding and resources — and this legislation will ensure that the FCC Telehealth Program can empower organizations like RAM to provide these crucial telehealth services. One of our recent telehealth patients was from Michigan and had suffered from extremely painful inflammation since January. She had had challenges trying to get time off work to see a doctor and had no insurance. Having access to our free telehealth program helped her navigate her difficult work situation and get the services she needed.”

“Telehealth has proven to be a vital tool in enhancing access to care during COVID-19,” said Krista Drobac, Executive Director, Alliance for Connected Care. “The Alliance for Connected Care applauds Representatives Spanberger (D-VA) and Johnson (R-SD) for their leadership in working to ensure additional FCC funding that will support access to the broadband and devices needed to provide these critical healthcare services.”

Click here to read the full bill text.


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