In trying times, West Virginians always rise to the occasion. We are seeing this right now as communities across the Mountain State battle the spread of COVID-19. The most important work we can do in government is to act swiftly and deliver the life-saving resources that our health care heroes need to meet this challenge.
Telehealth is a crucial tool in this battle against COVID-19. For years, the federal government has supported the buildout of high-speed Internet connections to brick-and-mortar health care facilities. While that is a good thing, and that important work is continuing, there is a new trend in telehealth towards “connected care.” Think about this as the healthcare equivalent of shifting from Blockbuster Video to Netflix. No longer do patients need to visit a hospital or clinic to receive care. With apps you can access right on a smartphone, tablet, or other connected device, West Virginians can access high-quality care without ever leaving home. These technologies can be used for everything from video visits with a health care professional, remotely monitoring blood glucose levels in patients with diabetes, and mental health counseling, among many other specialties.
We have been working to stand up a new telehealth initiative that supports this trend towards connected care. And our work took on even greater urgency with COVID-19. Ask any health care professional and they will tell you that we do not want patients traveling to brick-and-mortar hospitals and clinics right now unless they need the level of care that can only be treated in those facilities. Connected care technologies that let patients access health care from their home fits perfectly with the fight against COVID-19 and social distancing recommendations. It also helps in “normal” times by providing Americans with access to specialist care that is not available in so many of our rural communities.
The good news is that we worked—both in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—to expedite a new federal program and $300 million in funding to support connected care programs. The FCC is now rolling out this initiative in two phases. The first phase takes $200 million that Congress recently appropriated in a coronavirus relief package and fast-tracks it as part of an emergency COVID-19 program. This funding will be open to health care providers, including here in West Virginia, to purchase the devices and connections they need to deliver connected care services directly to patients in their homes.
Expanding telehealth right now helps us beat COVID-19 on a number of fronts. It not only limits the spread of COVID-19 by allowing people to check in with a doctor via telehealth before showing up to a health center, but it also keeps our health centers clear so health care workers can focus on COVID-19 patients. And for non-COVID-19 patients, this is a great way to stay connected with doctors without risking your health by showing up at a health center full of individuals who have potentially been infected with COVID-19.
The second phase of the new telehealth initiative allocates $100 million of previously authorized funds for a new connected care pilot over a three-year period and focuses the funding on low-income Americans and veterans. This will help ensure that every American has access to high-quality care.
Congress and the FCC moved with unprecedented speed in standing up these new telehealth initiatives. And West Virginia played a key role in that effort. Last year, we saw first-hand how West Virginia has been leading the way during a telehealth tour we took together through the state. In Boone County, we saw how providers there are already using telehealth to bring high-quality care to the community. At the Charleston Area Medical Center, Dr. Kadikoy showed us how remote ophthalmology services are being used in rural communities to help diagnose diabetes. We also met with psychiatrists and pain management specialists over a video connection who are now using telehealth and virtual visits to address opioid dependency in the state. These online sessions are providing West Virginia communities with access to life changing care that might not otherwise be available. And the lessons we learned from these visits provided the foundation for the new telehealth initiatives that Congress and the FCC passed on an accelerated basis.
Particularly in West Virginia, which has a large number of high-risk individuals, it is crucial that we act now to protect the lives of countless West Virginians. That is why we have moved with speed on this new telehealth initiative.
As we’re all at home—following recommended social distancing—let’s make sure to watch out for each other and our families’ health. With new tools like expanded telehealth options, we can beat this virus and emerge once again as a stronger and even more prosperous nation.