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FCC, HHS, USDA Announce Rural Telehealth Partnership, New Task Force

The three federal agencies are joining forces to advance the Rural Telehealth Initiative, which aims to expand telehealth services to rural parts of the country where healthcare access is challenging.

Published Tuesday, September 1, 2020
by Eric Wicklund

- The three federal agencies most closely associated with telehealth governance are joining forced to expand connected health opportunities in rural America.

The Federal Communications Commission, Health and Human Services Department and Department of Agriculture have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together on the Rural Telehealth Initiative, and will launch an interagency Rural Telehealth Task Force to push the project forward.

“From the beginning of my tenure at the FCC, I’ve heard and shared the view that telemedicine is a game-changer for rural America,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a press release. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made the rural healthcare challenge even more serious and has complicated healthcare providers’ efforts to serve rural Americans. More than ever, these areas of the country need enhanced connectivity to provide vital health services to residents.”

More than 15 percent of the country’s population live in rural areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they face challenges to accessing care that run the gamut from hospital closures and provider shortages to geographical barriers. In addition, rural residents are more likely to die from chronic conditions that could be better managed if they had unfettered access to care.

The announcement builds on President Donald Trump’s August 3 Executive Order on Improving Rural and Telehealth Access, which gave:

  • HHS 30 days to develop an “innovative payment model to enable rural healthcare transformation;”
  • The HHS Secretary and Secretary of Agriculture 30 days to “develop and implement a strategy to improve rural health by improving the physical and communications healthcare infrastructure available to all Americans;”
  • The HHS Secretary 30 days to report on existing and future policy initiatives to increase access to healthcare by removing regulatory burdens, “prevent disease and mortality” by developing incentives to improve rural outcomes, “reduce maternal mortality and morbidity” and improve mental health services in rural areas; and
  • The HHS Secretary 60 days to review the emergency measures enacted during the pandemic to improve telehealth coverage and access and “propose a regulation to extend these measures, as appropriate, beyond the duration” of the public health emergency.

READ MORE: How CMS Changes, Trump’s Executive Order Affect Telehealth Coverage

 

A little more than a week after that announcement, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services unveiled a new funding model – the CHART (Community Health Access and Rural Transformation) Model – aimed at giving rural healthcare providers the resources to expand access to care, including through connected health platforms.

The USDA, meanwhile, has been pushing federal funds to programs aimed at boosting telehealth programs and improving rural broadband connectivity. In the press release, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, noted the agency has, through the Rural Broadband ReConnect program, delivered “nearly $650 million in loans, grants and loan-grant combinations to deploy high-speed broadband internet to rural communities who do not have access.”

Aside from that, however, federal programs have drawn as much criticism as praise.

Pai, for example, is facing accusations that he and the FCC have mismanaged both the Rural Health Care Program, which provides funding for projects aimed at boosting broadband connectivity, and the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, which closed down in July after exhausting its $200 million budget. Several lawmakers have asked Pai to provide more details on the programs.

CMS, meanwhile, has proposed expanding Medicare coverage for certain telehealth services in its 2021 Physician Fee Schedule, but the agency is also planning on eliminating many of the CPT codes created during the pandemic to cover new telehealth services, and it’s facing questions over whether proposed changes to coverage for remote patient monitoring services will actually hinder providers who want to expand or launch those services.

READ MORE: HRSA Awards Almost $12 Million in Grants to Rural Telehealth Initiatives

 

As a result, federal officials are under the microscope to turn these proclamations into action, and many will be watching to see if this new partnership extends telehealth coverage or bolsters programs that provide better broadband connectivity in rural parts of the country.

“This Trump Administration-wide partnership will help more Americans in rural areas get access to the care they need,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in the press release. “Better access to telehealth in rural America means better health for some of our most vulnerable and greater resilience at times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“President Trump has made rural health a priority throughout his time in office, making payment reforms to help rural hospitals and establishing a Rural Health Task Force at HHS,” he added. “We look forward to working with our colleagues at the FCC and USDA to expand access through telehealth to quality, affordable care for the 57 million Americans living in rural areas.”

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