U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, today helped lead a subcommittee hearing on the importance of telehealth services and the critical role that broadband access plays in the public health response. During the hearing, Thune questioned South Dakotan Deanna Larson, CEO of Avel eCare in Sioux Falls, and Brendan Carr, commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, about the crucial role telehealth plays in rural areas. In his opening statement, Thune highlighted the benefits of telehealth in rural areas, his work securing key telehealth provisions in the CARES Act, cosponsoring the CONNECT for Health Act, and authoring the RUSH Act.
Thune’s opening remarks below (as prepared for delivery):
“Good morning and thank you, Chairman Lujan for holding this hearing.
“As a resident of a rural state, I’ve long been a proponent of telehealth for the access it gives to rural communities.
“If you live in a major city, you usually don’t have to think too much about where you’ll find a doctor if you need one.
“But that’s not always the case for Americans in rural areas.
“In the smallest towns in America, access to specialty care can be a challenge.
“The only providers may be a primary care provider, a nurse, or a pharmacist.
“These providers are essential to rural families, but there are times when specialty care is needed.
“And when there isn’t a specialist close by, telehealth can help get patients the medical care they need from a remote location through the use of technology.
“Telehealth services are also critical in nursing home facilities.
“In my state, we have strong programs designed to bring on-demand support into facilities to help avoid unnecessary emergency department transfers.
“My Reducing Unnecessary Senior Hospitalizations Act – or RUSH Act – would help facilitate more arrangements like we have in South Dakota, allowing medical groups to collaborate with nursing homes to provide telehealth services through a Medicare alternative payment model.
“I’m also pleased to support the bipartisan CONNECT for Health Act, which aims to expand telehealth services through Medicare, and is supported by more than half of the U.S. Senate.
“The bipartisan CARES Act played an important role in further expanding access to telehealth throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and I look forward to continuing the conversation with my colleagues at the Senate Finance committee on the path forward for Medicare reimbursement post-pandemic.
“And in my role on this committee, I will continue to advocate for the expansion of broadband services which has allowed more patients in rural areas to take advantage of telehealth services.
“It is critical that any additional broadband funding goes to truly unserved areas so we can expand the reach of next-generation services like telehealth.
“The Federal Communications Commission plays an important role to help expand telehealth services through a number of programs.
“Congress, acting in a bipartisan manner, provided a significant amount of funding for the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program through the CARES Act and the year-end coronavirus relief package.
“Several health care providers in all 50 states have been able participate in this important program.
“In my home state there are number of excellent health care providers expanding access to telehealth services by participating in this program.
“The Community HealthCare Association of the Dakotas received funding to for equipment necessary to expand remote patient monitoring and other telehealth services in community health centers.
“Sanford Health was able to utilize funding to secure wireless access points, which is necessary to conduct confidential telehealth appointments.
“And Avera Health and its affiliate Avel eCARE, represented on this panel today, received funding for a number of services including remote monitoring equipment and software to provide care for chronically ill patients in their homes.
“In addition to the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program, the FCC’s Universal Service Fund provides support for the Rural Health Care Program and for the Connected Care Pilot Program, which was spearheaded by Commissioner Carr.
“I appreciate Commissioner Carr taking the time to speak with us today about those programs.
“It is my hope we see you again soon before this committee as there are many other important issues at the FCC of interest to members.
“And lastly, I’d like to extend my thanks to Ms. Deanna Larson, President of Avel eCARE, for joining us today.
“As President of Avel eCARE, Ms. Larson has helped advance telehealth services across many areas in the Midwest.
“Thank you to all of the witnesses for being here today, and I look forward to hearing from you.
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”