Spanberger Leads Bipartisan Effort Calling for Strong Investments in FCC Telehealth Program as Nation Recovers from COVID-19 Pandemic

Jun 29, 2021
Healthcare
Press

The Congresswoman Led a 34-Member Letter Pushing Congressional Leadership to Prioritize Key Telehealth Investments in Future Legislative Packages

WASHINGTON, D.C. –  U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger is leading a bipartisan effort calling on Congress to strengthen support for the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) COVID-19 Telehealth Program, particularly as demand for routine telehealth services has skyrocketed in the wake of the pandemic.

In a letter sent to congressional leadership in both parties, the bipartisan group emphasized the high demand in their districts for reliable telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, they stressed how the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program has successfully helped local providers meet the need for safe and reliable healthcare access — and how continued, strong investments would provide them with the resources they require for new or existing telehealth projects.

Spanberger led the group of 34 Democrats and Republicans alongside co-leads U.S. Representatives Dusty Johnson (R-SD-AL), Doris Matsui (D-CA-06), and John Curtis (R-UT-03).

“Patients’ and providers’ embrace of telehealth over the past year signals that virtual care is here to stay – even after the public health emergency ends. The benefits are clear: from urban to rural communities, telehealth advances access across America by meeting the patient where they are located. However, inequities do still exist in virtual care delivery,” said Spanberger and 33 of her colleagues. “The ability to utilize services like telemedicine, remote monitoring, and other digital health solutions hinges not only on the patient’s and the provider’s access to broadband internet, but also on a provider’s ability to invest in the devices and equipment necessary to offer these services.

Their letter continued, “The uncertainty around sustained and adequate reimbursement for telehealth services has historically left many providers hesitant to make expensive, long-term investments in digital health solutions. However, given the exponential rise in telehealth use and adoption during the pandemic, and the remarkable embrace of these technologies by patients and providers, it is critically important that we continue to support providers’ ability to leverage digital health solutions to care for their patients.”

Spanberger’s letter was also signed by U.S. Representatives Cindy Axne (D-IA-03), Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-CA-44), David N. Cicilline (D-RI-01), Jim Cooper (D-TN-05), Madeleine Dean (D-PA-04), John Garamendi (D-CA-03), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ-05), Michael Guest (R-MS-03), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX-30), Robin L. Kelly (D-IL-02), Ron Kind (D-WI-03), Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH-02), Doug Lamborn (R-CO-05), John B. Larson (D-CT-01), Barbara Lee (D-CA-13), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA-47), Stephen F. Lynch (D-MA-08), Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA-32), Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ-01), Chris Pappas (D-NH-01), Terri A. Sewell (D-AL-07), Mike Simpson (R-ID-02), Haley Stevens (D-MI-11), William R. Timmons IV (R-SC-04), David Trone (D-MD-06), Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ-02), Peter Welch (D-VT-AL), Bruce Westerman (R-AR-04), Susan Wild (D-PA-07), Nikema Williams (D-GA-05), and Joe Wilson (R-SC-02).

“The COVID pandemic was especially challenging for rural healthcare providers for various reasons; however, the ability to maintain access to services through telehealth was tremendously beneficial to our patients.  Now that things are beginning to ‘normalize,’ we realize that telehealth can continue to play a vital role in ensuring our most geographically isolated patients still have access to care.  Infrastructure, such as broadband access, continues to be problematic, especially in our rural areas,” said Paula Tomko, CEO, Central Virginia Health Services, Inc. “We applaud Rep. Spanberger and her colleagues’ efforts to prioritize investments in telemedicine. We hope that Congress will recognize the value of expanding access in healthcare, as well as the impact that investment will have in other areas.”

“The Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics strongly supports this bipartisan letter urging the leadership in Congress to continue to improve access to digital health for under-resourced communities throughout our nation,” said Rufus Phillips, CEO, Virginia Association of Free & Charitable Clinics. “Free clinics in Virginia have witnessed first-hand the damage the digital divide has wreaked on the health of the vulnerable populations they serve, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. While CARES Act funding via the FCC has helped some safety-net providers begin to implement and expand connected care services for marginalized and isolated patients, much further investment in broadband and telemedicine is urgently required to improve access to virtual care more broadly for the underserved and thereby significantly improve their health and wellbeing.”

“Many people see telehealth as a way to fill rural health access gaps,” said Beth O’Connor, Executive Director, Virginia Rural Health Association. “Congresswoman Spanberger understands that there is no telehealth without broadband.”

“We commend Representative Spanberger in her leadership and advocacy in support of digital health and its technologies as a critical part of our nation’s infrastructure.  Continued FCC funding that supports the expansion of telemedicine across all regions of our nation  will further enable our healthcare systems and providers to provide timely, high quality care to patients through telehealth technologies beyond the public health emergency and bolster the groundwork for enduring commitments to telemedicine as a tool to enhance patient centered healthcare,” said Dr. Karen S. Rheuban, Director, University of Virginia Center for Telehealth.

“The ATA urges members of Congress to support improvements in the quality of our nation’s infrastructure, including investments in telehealth and broadband to support greater access to quality healthcare for all citizens. As Congress works to determine how to keep Medicare flexibilities that allow permanent access to telehealth, we cannot ignore the need to improve digital health equity by ensuring access to the technologies and infrastructure needed to deliver safe, effective and affordable virtual care wherever and whenever it’s needed,” said Ann Mond Johnson, CEO, American Telemedicine Association (ATA). “We remain grateful to the bipartisan leadership that has brought forward these key proposals and, again, urge Congress to prioritize further investment in broadband and digital care technologies, for the health of our nation, including rural and underserved communities.”

“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 is committed to ensuring this care continues while increasing equitable access in communities across our nation. We applaud Representatives Spanberger, Johnson, Matsui and Curtis for their bipartisan leadership in working to facilitate access to virtual care technologies – and their targeted efforts to support those who most need it.”

“CTeL thanks Representatives Abigail Spanberger, Dusty Johnson, Doris Matsui, and John Curtis for their leadership and commitment to closing the digital divide and ensuring quality health care coverage for all Americans. In order to unleash the full potential of telehealth and expand access to care for vulnerable populations, particularly in rural and underserved communities, it is crucial that Congress continues to invest in broadband infrastructure and connected care technology. This important investment would significantly reduce obstacles that prevent underserved communities from receiving timely access to quality health care,” said Christa Natoli, Executive Director, Center for Telehealth & e-Health Law (CTeL).

“The future of health care will transcend the proverbial four walls of a doctor’s office or hospital. It is critical that Congress consider this once-in-a-generation opportunity to create the right policies and enable additional pathways for the nation’s health care providers to invest in digital health. As providers embrace telehealth and transition to new hybrid care models, we applaud the work of Representatives Spanberger, Johnson, Matsui, Curtis and their many colleagues that have joined together to ensure that providers, especially in rural and underserved communities, are able to invest in digital health technologies, so all Americans can have access to high-quality virtual care services,” said Claudia Duck Tucker, Senior Vice President — Government Affairs and Public Policy, Teladoc Health.

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.

Click here to read a copy of the letter, and the full letter text is also below.

Dear Speaker Pelosi, Minority Leader McCarthy, Majority Leader Schumer and Minority Leader McConnell,

Like many facets of everyday life, the nation’s health care system transformed overnight with the onset of the pandemic. Telehealth and virtual care have been critical tools in preserving access to care, while decreasing risk for patients and providers alike during our ongoing response to COVID-19. As you consider proposals to improve the quality of our nation’s infrastructure, we urge you to prioritize broadband and technology investments in health care. Specifically, we ask that you work to improve digital health equity by facilitating access to technologies that are used to deliver high-quality virtual care.

Patients’ and providers’ embrace of telehealth over the past year signals that virtual care is here to stay – even after the public health emergency ends. The benefits are clear: from urban to rural communities, telehealth advances access across America by meeting the patient where they are located. However, inequities do still exist in virtual care delivery. The ability to utilize services like telemedicine, remote monitoring, and other digital health solutions hinges not only on the patient’s and the provider’s access to broadband internet, but also on a provider’s ability to invest in the devices and equipment necessary to offer these services. The uncertainty around sustained and adequate reimbursement for telehealth services has historically left many providers hesitant to make expensive, long-term investments in digital health solutions. However, given the exponential rise in telehealth use and adoption during the pandemic, and the remarkable embrace of these technologies by patients and providers, it is critically important that we continue to support providers’ ability to leverage digital health solutions to care for their patients.

Digital health solutions come in many forms. They include live-interactive videoconferencing, remote monitoring, store-and-forward imaging, and provider education. In rural areas, telehealth can help deliver better care by connecting rural providers and their patients to services at distant sites. Lack of transportation continues to challenge timely care delivery in rural America, and telehealth plays an important role in ensuring patients can access the care they need, when they need it. Rural, urban and medically underserved areas all face provider shortages, especially for high-demand services like mental health, and families across America lack the child care or work flexibility needed to see their doctor in-person. For these patients, being able to receive care where they are located, including at home and within their communities, is helping to alleviate historical social and economic barriers that have limited equal access to quality, timely, affordable care.

Many different types of care settings can benefit from telehealth technology. For example, a rural primary care provider may need to refer a patient to a stroke specialist, but the primary care provider and patient reside in an area where no such specialists practice. With telehealth, the provider would be able to connect the patient with a specialist at a remote site, saving the patient travel time to another community to obtain care. Or a single mother that lacks reliable transportation can now ensure her child receives his virtual follow-up care after receiving a cochlear implant without her missing work and possibly a day of pay.

In response to the care delivery challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act made a down payment on modernizing our digital health infrastructure, providing $200 million for the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to support health care providers in offering connected care services to patients at their homes or mobile locations. By reimbursing providers for the telecommunications systems and hardware necessary to provide digital health services, the FCC COVID-19 Telehealth Program has proven to be a critical catalyst to quickly expanding the use of connected care. The first round of the program received more than 5,000 applications from providers across the country and only 539 requests were funded. Congress doubled-down on the initial investment in the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) of 2021, and provided the Commission an additional $249 million in funding for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. Yet even as we are seeing a return on that investment, the need still exceeds the resources available in the current program.

Support from the FCC program has enhanced access and delivery across the care continuum. Endocrinologists, for example, are able to offer connected glucometers to their high-risk patients with diabetes to allow for continuous monitoring of their blood sugar. Other providers have used funds to invest in remote monitoring for expectant mothers with gestational diabetes. By tracking their vitals from home, the technology aims to reduce the number of visits to their OB-GYN during the pandemic. The funds have also been used to provide comprehensive telemental health services to older adults, particularly those who have struggled with isolation during the pandemic and are at a high risk for COVID-19 due to age and pre-existing conditions. Telehealth visits provide patients with high-quality care in lower cost settings, and in many cases, facilitate access to timely care that can later limit unnecessary trips to the emergency room. These are just a few of the countless ways that highlight telehealth’s benefit to patients and illustrates the need for sustained investments in our digital infrastructure.

Telehealth is the future of health care. It bridges the gaps in care delivery, expands access to primary and specialty services, and mitigates social and economic inequalities by meeting patients where they are located. We must ensure that all Americans, regardless of where they seek services have access to high-quality, secure, and affordable digital health care. As you work to organize policies aimed at improving America’s infrastructure, we urge you to prioritize further investment in broadband and digital care technologies, with a focus on directing resources to rural and medically underserved areas. We ask that special consideration is also made for tribal health care providers and other practices that serve high-need communities.

We look forward to working with you to bridge health care’s digital divide and truly embrace the potential of virtual care that empowers Americans to live healthier, happier lives.

Spanberger has long advocated for expanded telehealth services in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Last year, she introduced bipartisan legislation to provide an additional round of funding for the FCC Telehealth Program. Following her push, similar legislation passed as part of the bipartisan COVID-19 emergency relief package that was signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2020.

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