RICHMOND, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Representatives Abigail Spanberger, D-Va.-07, and Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., led a 41-member, bipartisan effort calling on the Federal Communications Commission to provide greater certainty and support to health care providers who offer telehealth services, according to a news release from Spanberger's team.

The bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai describing how high costs and insufficient broadband Internet connectivity prevent many rural patients and providers from fully accessing the benefits of telehealth.

The lawmakers called for more information to be made available to Congress about the COVID-19 telehealth program that is authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. They also expressed concerns that many providers eligible did not get an award from the initial funding package.

Spanberger said she has seen Central Virginians benefit from telemedicine.

“In Central Virginia, we’ve seen firsthand how seniors, veterans, and families have been able to access both routine appointments and lifesaving care through telemedicine. Especially during this public health crisis, we need to keep our most vulnerable neighbors safe, and thankfully, many of our region’s healthcare providers use telehealth to deliver quality care without putting Virginians at greater risk,” said Spanberger. “Unfortunately, unreliable internet access and rising costs often prevent patients from accessing these telehealth services. That’s why I led 40 of my colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, in emphasizing the critical importance of telehealth. I’ve been encouraged by the strong support these innovative, cutting edge healthcare programs have received in Congress so far, and I hope Congress and the FCC will take bold steps that can widen the adoption of these programs and expand high-quality, affordable healthcare access across our rural communities.”

Johnson said hospitals in South Dakota have been able to get access to telehealth services.

“Because of the CARES Act, hospitals around the country were able to apply for funding through the Federal Communications Commission to increase state access to telehealth services. This program permitted South Dakota hospitals to purchase telehealth equipment, ensuring our hospitals could meet the needs of patients virtually,” said Johnson. “If this program is working across the country like it is in South Dakota, we should reopen the application process to meet demand. I’m looking forward to hearing from the FCC on the viability of such an important effort to expand health care access to Americans.”

University of Virginia Center for Telehealth director Karen S. Rheuban, M.D., said the center supports the contribution.

“We are grateful for a recent award by the FCC COVID-19 Telehealth program that is supporting telehealth equipment in order to expand our telehealth outreach to care for patients during the COVID-19 public health emergency,” she said. “We support the program’s continuation, should additional funds be made available, and we appreciate Rep. Spanberger’s interest in this important program.”

The letter sent full text below:

Dear Commissioner Pai,

We write to request more information about the funding made available to providers through the COVID-19 telehealth program authorized by the CARES Act.

Telehealth is playing an increasingly important role in the delivery of health care services across the country. More and more patients are seeking care from providers over telecommunications technology rather than in a brick and mortar office or clinic. We believe this shift has the potential to improve access to care for marginalized populations, reduce costs, and improve health outcomes by facilitating better monitoring of chronic health conditions.

Telehealth is especially relevant during the public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Using telehealth platforms, patients can see providers with minimal risk of spreading or contracting coronavirus. We are pleased that Congress has acted through successive bills to expand flexibilities for federal health care programs to pay for telehealth services during this emergency.

We recognize that the costs of standing up telehealth programs and the insufficient access to broadband internet in many parts of the country are hindering providers and patients from realizing the full potential of these expanded flexibilities, especially during this pandemic. Partially to address these concerns, Congress included a $200 million appropriation in the CARES Act for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to support health care providers’ provision of telehealth services needed to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.

FCC moved quickly to begin distributing the CARES Act funds. On April 2, 2020, FCC announced the program and set the maximum award at $1 million. The program has proven to be very popular, and on June 25th, FCC announced it would no longer accept applications from providers for funding from the program. Finally, on July 8th, FCC announced the release of the final tranche of approved funding applications from the original $200 million appropriation.

Providers in our districts are very interested in participating in the program. However, we are concerned that many eligible providers and worthy telehealth projects did not receive funding from the initial appropriation.

As such, we respectfully ask for additional data around the following questions:

  1. How much more in funding would the agency require to fulfill all pending applications?
  1. What was the average funding amount requested by applicants?
  1. What technical assistance has the FCC provided to smaller providers that lack experience in applying for eligibility determinations from the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) or in dealing with the agency generally?
  1. Please provide information about the number of awards and the amount of funding that went to:
    1. Providers in rural and urban areas;
    2. Each category of provider type as described by Section 254(h)(7)(B) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996;
    3. Providers who primarily serve high-risk and vulnerable patients; and
    4. Any additional information that will facilitate Congressional understanding of the program’s impact.
  1. What is the average number of patients served by each award?
  1. What is the average time FCC takes to process reimbursements for invoiced services and devices by providers?

Thank you very much for your attention to these matters.