ATA takes FCC to task for delays in rural telehealth programs

By Eric Wicklund
08:45 AM

The American Telemedicine Association is unhappy with the government’s efforts – or lack thereof – to bring telehealth to rural America.

Jonathan D. Linkous, chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, fired off a letter this week to Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, criticizing the FCC’s inaction on a number of telehealth-related issues, including the National Broadband Plan, the Universal Support Mechanism for Rural Healthcare and a General Accounting Office report that criticized the FCC’s handling of the Rural Health Care Program.

“Despite the promises, the rhetoric and the official criticism, a great silence has settled over the commission regarding these issues,” Linkous’ letter stated. “Now, we also note the departure of every key professional staff from the commission involved in healthcare policy. It is deeply troubling to see that the commission is allotting practically no resources with no apparent plans to address the proposed rulemaking, the approved broadband plan or to respond to the GAO report.”

[See also: ATA conference highlights growth in telemedicine/telehealth.]

Linkous pointed out that the FCC’s proposed rulemaking for the Universal Support Mechanism for Rural Healthcare was issued one year ago, while the National Broadband Plan was adopted 16 months ago and the GAO’s report was issued eight months ago.

“This delay has not been without consequence,” his letter stated. “Despite the commission’s stated goal to provide up to $400 million annually in support of telecommunications to improve healthcare delivery, only about $80 million will be spent this year (outside of a one-time pilot program commitment). Thus, the commission annually leaves over $300 million in funds that could be used immediately to help improve Americans’ access to health services and help reduce the cost of healthcare. With the crisis America faces in healthcare, the commission’s failure to take action is disturbing.”

“Over the past three years ATA has repeatedly asked the commission to make changes in the rural healthcare program,” the letter concluded. “We have submitted numerous comments in the proceeding and have publically supported the proposals in the commission’s broadband plan. We are now making this plea for the FCC to reach a decision in these matters quickly and to implement the approved changes without further delay.”

[See also: Telehealth needs push from feds.]

While the FCC is in the ATA’s crosshairs, other federal agencies have drawn kudos for their efforts to advance telemedicine. In January, the USDA awarded $34.7 million in grants from its Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program to 44 rural healthcare organizations to advance telemedicine projects. And the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services in May published a final rule that allows critical access hospitals and other providers to “privilege by proxy” telemedicine providers based on a review of those providers by another hospital or entity and provided certain conditions are met. That final rule, which is designed to ease efforts by providers to offer and connect with telemedicine services across state lines, went into effect July 5.

In addition, CMS has proposed new rules for physician payments in 2012 that would pave the way for reimbursement for eICU programs, telestroke programs and certain smoking cessation programs that make use of telemedicine.

The ATA’s displeasure with the FCC is expected to feature prominently in the ATA’s upcoming policy summit, scheduled for July 27 in the nation’s capital, as well as the ATA’s fall conference, scheduled for Sept. 19-21 in Anchorage, Alaska.