Schatz, Markey, Bennet Lead Bipartisan Group Of Senators In Urging Federal Government To Expand Access To Telehealth Services For Rural Communities

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai?i), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) led a bipartisan group of 26 senators in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase subsidies to health care providers through the Rural Health Care Program. The additional funding would ensure that providers have the resources they need to deliver and expand telehealth services for rural communities during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“In this time of crisis, it is imperative we do our part to ensure the safety and security of our health care providers and patients,” the senators wrote. “That is why we are writing to ask you to waive current FCC rules and help increase access to care by increasing subsidies for Rural Health Care Program participants in Funding Year 2019 during this crisis.”

The coronavirus outbreak has caused an immense strain on health care providers in the United States. Telehealth offers an alternative to traditional services, allowing providers to deliver quality care to patients online without risking further spread of the virus. It is also often less expensive and more efficient than traditional methods of care. By making more subsidies available through the Rural Health Care Program, the federal government would ensure that providers receive the necessary resources for additional telehealth capacity or other needs during this public health emergency.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended telehealth to both screen for COVID-19 as well as deliver other services that do not require a patient to visit the hospital. Congress has also supported the use of telehealth during this public health emergency through the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, which waives restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare during the coronavirus outbreak.

The letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawai‘i), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Angus King (I- Maine), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), and Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

The full text of the letter follows. A PDF copy is available here.

Dear Chairman Pai:

We write to urge the Federal Communications Commission to take immediate steps to ensure that our nation’s health care providers have the resources they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Since 1997, the Commission has played an important role in expanding telehealth in the United States through the Rural Health Care Program.  That is why we are writing to ask you to waive current FCC rules and help increase access to care by increasing subsidies for Rural Health Care Program participants in Funding Year 2019 during this crisis.

Telehealth allows providers to deliver health care to patients without putting themselves at risk or requiring vulnerable patients to travel to hospitals and waiting rooms during public health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is often cheaper and more efficient than traditional health care delivery methods, allowing health care providers to have a greater impact in their communities.  For these reasons, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended health care providers use telehealth to direct patients to the right level of care for their health care needs, to conduct initial screenings of patients who may be infected with COVID-19, and to ensure that patients have access to necessary care without potentially exposing themselves by entering a hospital or physician’s office.  This is especially true for the approximately 45 million Americans age 65 and older who are at particular risk from the virus.  Congress has also supported the use of telehealth during this public health emergency through the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020, which waives restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare during the coronavirus outbreak, including allowing Medicare beneficiaries to receive telehealth services in their homes.

The Rural Health Care Program supports telehealth at urban and rural locations to improve patient care and reduce health care costs.  The program is comprised of two parts, the Telecommunications Program, which subsidizes the difference between urban and rural rates for telecommunications services, and the Health Care Connect Fund, which provides health care providers a 65% discount on their telecommunications and broadband costs.  Although the Rural Health Care Program has encouraged investment in telehealth across the country, it is not enough, as the COVID-19 pandemic has strained our nation’s medical system and has created an increased demand for remote patient care.   Increasing the subsidies for the Rural Health Care Program participants for the 2019 funding year would allow health care providers to increase the use of telehealth services and further protect the well-being of their patients and their employees.

The Commission’s Rural Health Care Program has been a key aspect of increasing telehealth in the United States.  In this time of crisis, it is imperative we do our part to ensure the safety and security of our health care providers and patients.  We thank you for your attention to this matter and we urge you to take action as soon as possible.  Due to the closure of many Senate offices during the coronavirus outbreak, physical signatures are unavailable.  The listed senators have asked to be signatories to this letter.

Sincerely,

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