The FCC last week voted to adopt a $200 million telehealth program to support healthcare providers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this proceeding, the FCC also voted to establish a Connected Care Pilot Program. This separate three-year Pilot Program will provide up to $100 million of support from the Universal Service Fund (USF) to help defray health care providers’ costs of providing connected care services and to help assess how the USF can be used in the long-term to support telehealth.
LGBT Tech applauds Commissioner Carr for leading this initiative and specifically for focusing the $100 million pilot on low-income Americans and veterans. The LGBTQ+ community is especially vulnerable during this time and this program can be a great benefit to LGBTQ individuals across the country, including LGBTQ+ individuals in rural communities, especially during this pandemic. Mental health issues for LGBTQ+ individuals can be greatly aggravated as social isolation and the need to shelter in place can have unintended negative consequences (such as LGBTQ+ youth coming out to a hostile family and now having to remain with them in 24-hour isolation). For many, going home and staying home is not a solution and can lead to increased mental stress and anguish. In addition, for transgender individuals, who face hostility and isolation already, telehealth programs such as the Connected Care Pilot Program can be lifesaving during this time when they may not have access to in-person medical resources specific to their needs. According to a recent article, a study of rural sexual minorities found that 14 percent of transgender and non-binary people lived more than an hour's drive from their primary care providers, compared to only 5 percent of their gay, cisgender counterparts. And respondents to the 2015 US Transgender Survey said they were more likely to travel long distances for transition-related care than for routine care. For these individuals affordable and widespread telehealth services are not a luxury but rather a critical necessity.
Generally, as a minority group, the LGBTQ+ community can face uphill battles when looking for a doctor—18 percent of LGBTQ+ Americans avoid going to the doctor because they fear discrimination. Consequently, many turn to the Internet for the answer, with 81 percent of LGBTQ+ youth searching for medical related information online compared to only 46 percent of non-LGBTQ+ youth.
It is encouraging that more than 70 percent of healthcare providers offer telehealth services, but for more than 50 million rural Americans who lack access, including many in the LGBTQ+ community, telehealth is simply out of reach. With access to this Pilot Program, LGBTQ+ Americans needn't fear that the doctor they see does not understand their circumstance, or that the same doctor also sees their parents. It also means they can see doctors who have more experience with, or who specialize in, taking care of LGBTQ+ patients. Everyone should be able to choose their doctor, and this is especially consequential for LGBTQ+ Americans in rural communities.
The FCC is accepting applications for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program at https://www.fcc.gov/covid-19-telehealth-program. The COVID-19 Telehealth Program will provide $200 million in funding, appropriated by Congress as part of the CARES Act, to help health care providers furnish connected care services to patients at their homes or mobile locations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.