Health Law Scan

Legal Insights and Perspectives for the Healthcare Industry

The FCC recently issued draft rules for a pilot funding program to enhance broadband service for connected care telehealth purposes, reflecting the agency’s recognition of the increasingly critical role that telehealth plays in the healthcare industry. The proposal for a $100 million fund to use advanced telehealth technologies to reach low-income Americans and veterans will be of great interest to many healthcare companies.

The three-year Connected Care Pilot Program would cover up to 85% of certain internet connectivity costs (connectivity and equipment) for healthcare organizations participating in the pilot. Unlike the FCC's $571 million Rural Health Care Program and other FCC programs that support connections between healthcare providers or providers’ access to telecommunications and broadband services, the Connected Care Pilot is designed to support remote and mobile healthcare provided to patients. The FCC hopes to obtain valuable data concerning connected care services provided to medically underserved populations and the extent to which empowering healthcare providers to connect directly to patients can improve health outcomes. The FCC will also measure whether the pilot reduced healthcare costs, supported the trend toward connected care, and demonstrated whether such funding can positively impact existing telehealth initiatives. Data from the pilot may serve as the basis for additional funding programs. Because the pilot is still in draft form, healthcare organizations have an opportunity to shape many aspects of how the pilot will be conducted, and potentially opportunities for additional connected care funding in the future.

Specifically, the FCC is seeking public input on the following:

What healthcare services should be targeted? Among other potentially covered services, the FCC seeks input on the definitions of telehealth and telemedicine services and connected care technologies. The FCC proposes to make end user devices, medical devices, and mobile applications ineligible for support. Consider if your organization could benefit from being able to offer connected devices directly to veterans and low-income patients.

What health conditions should be targeted? The FCC seeks input on its proposal to direct funding to the care of patients with health conditions that typically require at least several months to treat, such as behavioral health, opioid dependency, chronic health conditions (e.g., diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, stroke recovery), and high-risk pregnancies. Consider whether other conditions might also be well managed, and provide useful data, via telehealth services.

Who should participate in the pilot program, including eligible healthcare providers? The FCC proposes to consider a range of healthcare providers with “brick and mortar” locations with some experience in telehealth, including not-for-profit hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, teaching hospitals, community health centers and mental health centers, and medical schools, among other institutions. Is your organization in the list? Should organizations such as Federally Qualified Health Centers or Rural Health Centers be included? What about emergency clinics and physician offices?

How should pilot project applications be submitted and evaluated, projects be administered, and data be gathered through the pilot to inform future FCC determinations? The FCC proposes a competitive bidding system based on applications that describe each connected care services project to be funded, the provider’s experience and qualifications, the number of low-income patients served, conditions to be treated, the provider’s goals for the project, broadband services needed for the pilot, costs of broadband services and other eligible expenses, method of measuring the effect of the pilot on health outcomes, etc. The FCC proposed to give bonus points for rural healthcare providers, rural patients served in five or more underserved areas, service to tribal areas and/or veterans, and treatment of specific diseases, mental conditions, and high-risk pregnancies. The FCC seeks input on specific ways it could measure the health effects of the pilot projects and how such support programs can improve health outcomes through telehealth.

What is the scope of the services and equipment that can be funded under the FCC’s legal authority? The FCC seeks input on the scope of services and equipment that can be funded under its statutory authority. For example, how should the FCC treat cloud-based solutions or finished service packages that allow providers to provide telehealth including connected care? What network equipment is required for such services? Do healthcare providers have difficulty affording these types of services without support? Should support be available for servers, routers, firewalls, and switches or to upgrade existing equipment and increase bandwidth?

Comments and reply comments on the proposal will be due 30 days and 60 days, respectively, after publication in the Federal Register. Do you have questions about the proposal, need more information, or want to submit a comment? Contact Catherine Wang for more information.