Telehealth stakeholders are urging HHS to designate at least $28 million for its Telehealth Resource Centers program to provide a financial boost to the centers that provided technical support for providers and health care entities that rapidly established telehealth programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program has received the same level of funding since 2006 even though demand for technical assistance from TRCs increased drastically during the pandemic.
Currently, each center receives $325,000 annually, according to a letter spearheaded by the Alliance for Connected Care and other telehealth stakeholders. An allotment of $28 million to the TRCs program would ensure that each regional and national TRCs can receive at least $2 million. The stakeholders also want Congress to restore the statutory requirement that TRCS be nonprofits — a requirement that lawmakers unexpectedly removed as part of the CARES Act.
TRCs, which are under the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), offer telehealth assistance to public and private stakeholders. There are 14 TRCs, which include national resource centers that focus on technology and policy, and regional centers that provide technical assistance to states. The various TRCs work together to provide assistance to consumers, rural health clinics, hospital systems, individual providers and others.
Although there was a bipartisan effort by Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), Dusty Johnson (R-SD) and Dan Meuser (R-PA) to add $5 million to the baseline appropriation for TRCs in the fiscal 2022 budget, the increase did not make it into the final budget. HRSA did not ask for an increase in its fiscal 2023 budget request.
TRCs experienced an 800% increase in demand for telehealth assistance across the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the letter. Throughout the pandemic, TRCs were the only entities that were able to immediately provide technical assistance as health care providers requested help in developing telehealth programs. Federal and state officials also relied on TRCs to consult on telehealth use and implementation as the centers were the only entities with in-depth knowledge around technology.
Mei Kwong, executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy, told Inside Telehealth that TRCs are not only expected to assist the general public, but also help HRSA grantees.
“With the increased interest in telehealth, there has been an explosion of newly funded telehealth programs, some who may need technical assistance from the TRCs,” Kwong said. “So the workload on the TRCs has increased significantly, but yet there’s been no funding increase in over a decade.”
TRCs are historically underfunded, with each center receiving $325,000 annually. Although each center received $828,000 under the CARES Act in March 2020, that funding has since expired. The support provided to TRCs has not been sufficient to meet the nation’s significantly increased demand for telehealth assistance.
“Lack of sufficient funding is creating a strain on TRCs’ ability to keep wages in line with inflation and many are losing experienced staff to the private sector,” the letter reads.
Experienced staff have been leaving TRCs as demand for telehealth support increases with no comparable boost in funding, the stakeholders say. It is unclear how TRCs will be able to function if increased funding is not allocated, according to the letter.
The letter also calls for restoration of the statutory requirement that TRCS be nonprofits. The nonprofit status is significant because TRCs need to be unbiased purveyors of telehealth technical assistance, according to Kwong.
Since TRCs assist organizations in their creation of a telehealth program, the centers must remain neutral when giving advice to entities about which technologies they need or should buy. If TRCs were for-profit entities, it would be easier to steer those who seek help from the centers to specific vendors or providers.
“As the telehealth policy resource center, I’m often contacted by federal and state policymakers,” Kwong said. “They need to be able to trust that any information I provide to them isn’t influenced financially by any specific group. The non-profit language helps ensure the neutrality of the information we give.”