Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday reassured lawmakers that supporting telemedicine access during the COVID-19 pandemic is a "top commission priority."
Pai highlighted two of the agency's programs—the COVID-19 Telehealth Program and the Rural Health Care Program—as examples of the FCC's commitment to supporting telemedicine adoption at a forum convened by the House Committee on Energy & Commerce's subcommittee on communications and technology.
Telemedicine has experienced rapid growth in recent months, as hospitals ramp up their use of the practice as a way to let patients receive care at home without needing to visit a facility.
Demand for telemedicine is expected to rise 64% by year-end, according to a recent report from market research firm Frost & Sullivan.
But despite rapid adoption in certain areas, lack of consistent high-speed internet has been cited as a challenge for patients seeking care via telemedicine. That's a particular concern in rural America, where roughly 31% of people lack access to wired broadband that meets the FCC's speed benchmark, according to a report the agency released in 2018.
"Our hope is that between these two programs it will help ensure that healthcare providers around the country have the resources and flexibility they need to promote telehealth solutions," Pai said during the forum Tuesday. He called on other agencies to support telemedicine adoption, such as by reducing state licensing restrictions and reimbursement barriers.
"Let's work together across agencies and across branches of government to make sure telehealth's promise is released," Pai said.
The FCC has approved a collective $33.26 million in funding to 82 healthcare organizations as part of its COVID-19 Telehealth Program, a program established under the CARES Act to help organizations purchase telecommunications equipment, broadband connectivity and devices needed to provide telemedicine during the outbreak.
The FCC launched the COVID-19 Telehealth Program in April.
Since then, the $33.26 million in funding—16.6% of the $200 million that Congress allocated for the program—has been committed to the 82 healthcare organizations, but not yet distributed, Pai said. Organizations receive funding after submitting an invoice and supporting documentation for eligible services, as a form of reimbursement.
Pai said the FCC has received just one "certified invoice" from a COVID-19 Telehealth Program participant to date. Pai said the FCC anticipates distributing the entire $200 million.
Pai said the FCC has also made updates to a long-standing agency program, the Rural Health Care Program, which helps fund broadband and telecommunications services for healthcare providers in rural areas.
Updates have included allocating an additional $42 million to help fund the program's services and extending the application deadline for the program through June.
"I really do think that it's the moment for telehealth and telemedicine to shine," Pai said.