The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday unanimously voted to move forward with plans for a $100 million pilot program to promote telemedicine services.
The FCC voted to adopt a notice of proposed rulemaking for a program dubbed the Connected Care Pilot.
"The future of healthcare is connected care, and this is the future that I want the FCC to support," agency Chairman Ajit Pai said at an open meeting Wednesday. "The $100 million budget we propose for the Connected Care Pilot program is a smart investment for us and for the country."
A year ago, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr unveiled plans for a program that would allocate up to $100 million to support telemedicine projects. The three-year program, dubbed the Connected Care Pilot, would support a limited number of projects, focusing on pilots that help providers "defray" the broadband costs of bringing telemedicine to low-income Americans and veterans.
Unlike existing FCC healthcare programs, such as the agency's Rural Health Care Program, the proposed pilot would focus on projects that connect patients with healthcare services directly and outside of a hospital.
With the vote, the FCC formally proposed the Connected Care Pilot and said it plans to seek public comment on what kinds of healthcare and broadband service providers should be eligible for the program, as well as what goals and metrics the program should set and how the agency should gather data during the program.
Telemedicine has provided benefits for patients with diabetes, opioid dependency and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions, Carr said during the meeting. He cited data from the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, which found a remote patient-monitoring program had reduced days of inpatient care by 25% and hospital admissions by 19%.
The VA's remote patient-monitoring program cost $1,600 per patient, compared with $13,000 per patient for traditional care, Carr said.
"Given the significant cost savings and improved patient outcomes associated with these pilots, we should align public policy in support of this movement in telehealth," Carr said, adding that data from the FCC's Connected Care Pilot will likely be able to help inform future policies to promote telemedicine. "It's the healthcare equivalent of moving from Blockbuster to Netflix."
Providers largely expressed excitement about the program last year, though some warned the FCC needed to establish more detailed metrics for success. The FCC is seeking feedback on what metrics and data to collect as part of its upcoming request for comment on the program, according to its notice of proposed rulemaking.
"There are many ways to pitch the benefits of broadband, but (I'm) hard-pressed to think of one more powerful than telemedicine," Pai said at the meeting.
Despite the unanimous vote, commissioners did raise some concerns.
FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly questioned budgeting for the program. As written, the proposed Connected Care Pilot would be funded by the Universal Service Fund, a fund managed by the FCC that collects fees from telecommunications companies. The FCC uses these contributions to subsidize services for low-income and rural areas.
O'Rielly said that the FCC has not proposed including the Connected Care Pilot within any of the Universal Service Fund's existing programs.
"However, $100 million in funding must come from somewhere," he said, suggesting the program will result in telecommunications companies being asked to pay larger contributions to the USF. "I appreciate Commissioner Carr for the work on the (Connected Care Pilot), and look forward to more discussions raised in context of the larger USF."