Recent FCC Telehealth Roundtable Highlights Telehealth is Here to Stay | Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP


[co-author: Alexa Rummel]

On December 6, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brendan Carr hosted a virtual round table with healthcare providers and industry leaders to discuss lessons learned from their experiences in delivering telehealth services. The two panels of the roundtable included recipients of FCC funding Connected care pilot program and the urgency COVID-19 telehealth program, both of which launched in early 2020.

the Connected care pilot program is a long-term universal service program that provides grants to selected “pilot projects” that use telehealth to treat specific populations, conditions, or geographic areas, with an emphasis on service to low-income Americans . the COVID-19 telehealth program distributed $ 200 million in emergency funds, allocated by Congress under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, directly to health care providers to facilitate the expansion of telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioner Carr has been a strong supporter of these programs and has long expressed support for the use of the agency’s regulatory power to “provide affordable, high-quality care directly to patients outside of facility boundaries. connected, brick and mortar. . “

During the roundtable, panelists highlighted the many benefits of telehealth for providers and patients alike as the healthcare industry has evolved rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to these benefits, panelists discussed the many challenges faced by healthcare providers using telehealth technologies, including potential barriers to providing long-term distance healthcare services.

Advantages

Several panelists explained how their telehealth programs, made possible with funding from FCC, enable the delivery of more effective and efficient health services. For example, panelist Dr Robert Donnell, director of medical information at the University of Florida, discussed how telehealth breaks down geographic barriers and other social factors that impact patients’ ability to access healthcare services. health. He pointed out that telehealth offers better possibilities to provide equal access to necessary medical care to many people.

Panelists also discussed the long-term benefits of telehealth services, not only for the health and well-being of patients, but also for providers and third-party payers. For example, panelist Deanna Larson, President of Avel eCARE, explained that telehealth enables early care and intervention, which reduces the “disease spiral that … takes many people to the hospital”. Panelist Dr David Houghton, chairman of telehealth and medical director of digital medicine at Ochsner Health, added that remote patient monitoring programs “reduce things like heart attacks and strokes for the individual patient “, while reducing” face to face contact “. points ”, which benefits the health care system and reduces costs for payers.

COVID-19 Challenges and Considerations

While the panelists highlighted many values ​​of telehealth throughout and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, they also recognized that there are many challenges associated with providing healthcare services remotely. .

Specifically, panelists explained that technological barriers, especially when serving populations less familiar with the required technologies and platforms, have been difficult for patients and providers to overcome. Panelist Dr Shireen Atabaki, director of pediatric emergency medicine at the National Children’s Hospital, highlighted the unique challenges facing underserved populations and families, such as having to pay for expensive data plans needed to access telehealth services. Panelist Dr Ricardo Munoz, Executive Director of Telemedicine at Children’s National Hospital, also highlighted cybersecurity issues that need to be considered when providing health services remotely.

Panelists also discussed the evolving legal framework governing the delivery of telehealth services, which presents compliance challenges for healthcare providers. Dr Munoz described the current regulatory framework as a “moving target,” an observation that was echoed by other panelists regarding issues such as licensing requirements and reimbursement.

The regulatory framework for healthcare has changed rapidly following the statement by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) of a Public health emergency (PHE) in January 2020. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) subsequently issued general exemptions under section 1135 of the Social Security Act, which provided much-needed flexibility for healthcare providers to respond to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Panelists said many healthcare providers are anxiously awaiting the conclusion of the PHE, as many of the flexibilities offered by waivers issued during the pandemic will end. Some of these flexibilities include the “audio only” authorization for certain services and the waiver of certain location-based requirements for reimbursement of health insurance. Temporary accommodations like these have enabled healthcare providers to provide better access to telehealth services, but the regulation will revert to its original status once the PHE is over, explained panelist Joel White, director Executive of the Health Innovation Alliance.

Conclusion

While the FCC’s telehealth initiatives have provided much-needed financial support to healthcare providers seeking to treat patients remotely, Commissioner Carr noted that he does not envision long-term involvement of the FCC in this domain. Panelist Stuart Clarry, director of telehealth services at the University of Florida, said he was eager to move from grant-funded support to more sustainable, long-term support for these types of services.

In addition to highlighting the FCC’s efforts, the roundtable stressed that telehealth is here to stay, but will require coordinated efforts from agencies and legislators to create a framework that enables and encourages healthcare solutions. effective, efficient and beneficial to patients, providers and third party payers. On the future of telehealth, panelist Joel White warned that health care providers would lose the flexibilities of the pandemic era “unless Congress takes action.” Obtaining agency support for maintaining the flexibilities currently in place is essential in convincing lawmakers to adopt long-term solutions for telehealth providers and beneficiaries.