Friday, October 08, 2021

Health IT experts urge Senate to make pandemic telehealth regs permanent; FCC vows to update broadband maps

Health-care internet technology experts told a Senate subcommittee Thursday that many rural hospitals won't be able to take advantage of telehealth services if they can't afford or access broadband internet. The Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband convened the hearing to examine barriers to telehealth access.

Deanna Larson, president of telehealth company Avel eCare, testified that affordability is the biggest barrier to broadband adoption, and urged lawmakers to broaden telehealth regulations so more hospitals can use it. "Larson urged Congress to extend or make permanent their regulatory flexibility toward telehealth especially as it relates to being neutral on the kinds of telemedicine, such as phone-only care, asynchronous care, and remote patient monitoring," Riley Steward reports for Broadband Breakfast, a site that advocates for better broadband access. "An economic benefit of which would be keeping medical commerce local, she said. Patients wouldn’t be required as often to move to a higher level of care out of town."

Widespread telehealth availability could save the health care system an estimated $305 billion a year, Federal Communications Commission member Brendan Carr said at the hearing, Steward reports. He also endorsed several Senate bills that would enhance telehealth access, including the bipartisan Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act, which was introduced in June by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Terry Moran (R-Kan.).

The bill, along with its House companion, the Protecting Telehealth Access Act, focus on specific changes to telehealth that have proven successful during the pandemic, Eric Wicklund reports for mHealth Intelligence. Both bills call on Congress to allow audio-only telehealth appointments to receive the same payments as other appointments, permanently waive Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services geographic restrictions so patients can be treated in their homes, permanently allow rural health clinics and federally qualified health centers to provide telehealth services, and allow critical access hospitals to bill directly for telehealth services.

However, even if the bills pass, they can only help if hospitals can access affordable broadband. The FCC awards rural broadband buildout contracts to companies based on maps meant to identify who lacks broadband access. But those maps are inaccurate, a problem the commission has vowed to fix. Subcommittee members at the hearing pressed Carr to complete the improved maps so more rural areas can get the broadband access they need, Maria Curi reports for Bloomberg Law.

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