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FCC Eyes Support for Telehealth, RPM Projects Serving Rural America

The FCC's proposed $100 million Connected Care Pilot Program would focus on telehealth, telemedicine and remote patient monitoring projects to help low-income Americans, especially veterans and those in rural areas.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Federal authorities are proposing to launch a $100 million program to support telehealth and telemedicine programs for underserved populations, including remote patient monitoring programs that have shown past success in treating rural patients with diabetes and veterans.

The Connected Care Pilot Program, announced by Federal Communications Commission member Brendan Carr and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker in a July 11 op-ed piece in the Clarion Ledger, would focus on projects for low-income Americans, particularly veterans and those in rural areas. It would also support certain projects over the next two to three years that measure and verify the value of connected care programs in reducing costs, increasing savings and improving clinical outcomes.

The FCC will vote on a Notice of Inquiry at its August meeting to support the program.

“We’re seeing a trend in telehealth towards connected care everywhere,” Carr announced in an FCC press release. “The FCC has long supported the deployment of broadband to healthcare facilities, but advances in technology mean that high-tech, life-saving services are no longer limited to the confines of connected, brick-and-mortar facilities. I saw this firsthand when I visited Mississippi six months ago and learned about a remote patient monitoring trial that improved outcomes for diabetes patients living in the rural Mississippi Delta. Since then, my office has been meeting with experts in this field, visiting rural health care facilities, and working to see how the FCC can support this movement towards connected care.”

The mention of Mississippi isn’t a coincidence. The state is one of the nation’s poorest and most rural, with high healthcare costs associated with chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. It’s also home to a developing and well-regarded telehealth network overseen by the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), which was named a national Telehealth Center of Excellence last year by the Health and Human Services Department’s Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

READ MORE: Is CMS Giving Telehealth Its Due In Its New Rural Health Strategy?

As proof, Carr and Wicker pointed to a remote patient monitoring pilot launched by UMMC and wireless provider C Spire in 2014 that targeted people with chronic conditions in the Mississippi Delta. The 100-patient project showed improved outcomes for people with diabetes and reduced hospital readmission rates, saving the health system almost $700,000 in annual costs.

That pilot led to the creation of the Diabetes Telehealth Network, which has since expanded to monitor more chronic conditions in states across the Southeast U.S.

The FCC also pointed to the success of telehealth programs under the Veterans’ Health Administration, including an RPM project that saved more than $11,000 per patient in primary care services and others that have reduced inpatient care days by 25 percent and reduced hospital admissions by 19 percent.

“Given the significant cost savings and improved patient outcomes associated with connected care, we should align public policy in support of this movement in telehealth,” Carr added in the press release. “At the FCC, we can play a constructive role by helping to support the connectivity and deployments needed to ensure that all communities get a fair shot at benefiting from new telehealth technologies.”

Just last month, the FCC took a strong step in that direction by agreeing to add $171 million to this year’s Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program, which supports broadband expansion to rural parts of America for telehealth and telemedicine expansion, among other uses, and to develop a new formula for figuring each year’s funding amount.

READ MORE: Remote Patient Monitoring Brings mHealth Care Management Into the Home

This week’s announcement drew praised from several organizations supporting telehealth and RPM expansion, including ACT|The App Association’s Connected Health Initiative.

“We strongly support the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) decision to establish the ‘Connected Care Pilot Program,’” CHI Executive Director Morgan Reed said in an e-mail. “This $100 million program is a boon for the millions of Americans living without reliable access to healthcare and the American businesses driving effective, innovative telehealth solutions. We have long been a vocal advocate of connected health and the vital importance of connectivity – without access to broadband, the personalized care, expedited diagnoses, lowered healthcare costs, and countless cost-saving, life-saving benefits of telehealth would be utterly impossible.”

“This pilot program could create more opportunities for our nation’s leading telehealth innovators, like our steering committee member University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), to increase healthcare access and improve treatment outcomes,” he added. “In a state like Mississippi where 60 percent of the population lives 40 minutes from specialty care facilities, UMMC has used telehealth solutions like remote monitoring and store and forward technologies to treat patients cost-effectively, remotely, and in real time.”

 

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