FCC commissioner unveils plan to fund broadband for Connected Care program

$100 million telehealth proposal announced at Laurel Fork clinic

LAUREL FORK, Va. – Technology may change the way rural Americans stay healthy, and the Federal Communications Commission is planning a large investment for the future of health care.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr announced a $100 million plan to expand the Connected Care Pilot Program, which focuses on bringing telehealth to rural and veteran patients. The money will improve the technological infrastructure so patients can communicate with their doctors and share their health data without leaving the house.

"We''re at this interesting tipping point between exclusively going to a hospital for care versus having it delivered to your home on your phone," Carr said. "I think of it as the health care equivalent of Blockbuster versus Netflix."

Carr made the announcement at the Tri-Area Community Health Center in Laurel Fork, which has joined forces with the University of Virginia to provide telehealth services throughout Southwest Virginia.

"There are only three endocrinologists within a 50-mile radius of Laurel Fork," said Dr. Richard Santen, a University of Virginia endocrinologist who offered his expertise remotely to patients through Tri-Area's program. "You have to ask, how do we solve this problem?"

Tri-Area's telehealth program has focused on helping diabetic patients manage their condition. Galax resident Kathleen Lathem says her six-month program helped her lower her A1C levels, which the Mayo Clinic defines as your average blood sugar level for the past two to three months.

"When I saw Dr. Santen on the TV screen, it was like I already knew him," Lathem said.  "I feel energetic where that I can get up and go on walks. My grandkids don't have to say, 'Come on, GG.' Now, I get up and tell my grandkids, 'Come on.'"

Carr hopes the plan will encourage other hospitals in rural areas to follow the telehealth example Tri-Area has set.

"Funding the connectivity that low-income consumers need to connect to this kind of telehealth can make a big difference," Carr said. "The technology that is limited just to the confines of a brick-and-mortar facility does little to help communities and patients that are long miles away from facilities."

Rep. Morgan Griffith, who represents the district where Tri-Area is, gave his support for the Connected Care plan in a statement.

“Telehealth can bring more health care access and choice to rural areas," Griffith said. "The FCC’s support for telehealth through the Connected Care Pilot Program will help health care providers reach more patients at a lower cost. It is fitting that Commissioner Carr made this announcement in Laurel Fork, as the people of Southwest Virginia stand to benefit from telehealth initiatives such as the Connected Care Pilot Program.”

Carr says the FCC will vote on the program July 10.