The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act was signed into law on March 27, 2020. At over $2 trillion, this formidable legislation represents the largest economic stimulus package in history. It will provide much needed fiscal assistance to individuals, businesses, and hospitals that have suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also recognized telehealth as a vital tool to help stem the tide of this virus.
There are eight parts of The CARES Act pertaining to telehealth, and they all relate to the expansion and improvement of its access. The CARES Act provides:
- $25M for rural utilities to prepare for telemedicine services and broadband service.
This improves the virtual response to the COVID-19 emergency. Rural communities are often some of the most underserved parts of our country and many residents in these areas lack access to broadband internet—or an internet connection. In the age of social distancing, using wifi at a coffee shop or local library is no longer an option. Improving, or even providing broadband access to rural residents, will provide an important tool to help slow the spread of the disease.
- $29 million a year through 2025 to the Health and Resource Service Administration’s Telehealth Resource Center (HRSA).
This reauthorizes it’s grant programs which will encourage innovative and helpful telehealth initiatives to get funding to expand and improve telehealth access. Currently, the HRSA only has two telehealth grants open for applications. Once the HRSA receives its funding, there will be more telehealth funding opportunities.
- A temporary lifting of restrictions on Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and Rural Health Clinics (RHCs).
Providers in FQHCs and RHCs can now see beneficiaries in their homes with telehealth, and Medicare is expected to reimburse for the visit. This has been a request from FQHCs and RHCs for years! This is a huge benefit to Medicare beneficiaries.
- A temporary lifting of face-to-face visit requirements for home dialysis patients.
The lifting of this requirement will provide a much needed respite for these immunocompromised patients who currently have to have a face-to-face visit with their providers. Their physicians and HCPs will be able to use telehealth to advise patients and caregivers, and stay on top of this patient population's unique needs and demands.
- A way to reestablish Hospice Care eligibility via telehealth.
During this COVID-19 emergency period, providers are authorized to use telehealth in order to “fulfill the hospice face-to face recertification requirement,” reducing potential delays in providing much needed home-health services and lowering exposure risk for critically ill patients as well as their providers.
- $200M for use by FCC to launch a new telehealth program aimed to improve broadband connectivity for connected health services.
FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai said in a press release, “Our nation’s health care providers are under incredible, and still increasing, strain as they fight the pandemic. My plan for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program is a critical tool to address this national emergency.”
- $1.032B to the Department for Health and Human Services for Indian Health Services
“To prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including...telehealth and other information technology upgrades…”. (CARES Act) Reliable broadband connections on American Indian Reservations is poor, to say the least. In fact, according to a report by Emily Siess at Washington University School of Information “51% of Navajo reservation residents do not have indoor plumbing and 48% lack complete kitchen facilities” let alone internet connectivity. This allocation will provide a great opportunity to improve this condition.
- $27B to the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund.
Of which $180M is to be used for telehealth and rural health activities. This provides an opportunity for the improvement of telecommunication infrastructure in rural areas including broadband access, establishment of telehealth programs in local communities, hardware upgrades, and more that will benefit the health and well being of rural residents.
Telehealth is on the frontlines of the fight!
The broad sweeping away of telehealth restrictions during this time and this historic funding of it has allowed better access to this vital component of our healthcare system. If there is a time to implement or expand a telehealth program, it is now.
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