US lawmakers want to make sure pandemic telehealth coverage doesn’t lapse

The pandemic pushed US lawmakers to provide provisions to expand medical coverage for telehealth in 2020, speeding up a process that would otherwise have taken years. Since then, there have been efforts to make the change permanent, through things like the Telehealth Expansion Act of 2021. But there is an interim period that could present some uncertainty over whether people can get crucial telehealth services while permanent legislation is drawn up. Today, a bipartisan group of 45 lawmakers, led by Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), said they’re “calling for the extension of expanded coverage of telehealth services to be included in must-pass legislation in February.”

The group published a letter addressing Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as their minority counterparts and notable signees include Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). 

The letter states “While Congress prepares to enact permanent telehealth legislation, we urge you to include an extension of the pandemic telehealth authorities in must-pass government funding legislation in February.” 

Currently, pandemic telehealth decision-makers have temporary authority, and that’s tied to the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration. As stated in today’s letter, the emergency declaration is renewed in three-month increments. “Without more definitive knowledge about the duration of the pandemic and Medicare’s long-term coverage of telehealth, many organizations have been hesitant to fully invest in telehealth.”

In addition to providing more confidence to providers that investing in telehealth will be a sound long-term investment, adding an extension to telehealth coverage while making it permanent will also “reassure patients that their care will not end abruptly.”

The lawmakers called for “An extension to maintain expanded coverage of Medicare telehealth services for a set period of time,” which the letter said “would provide much-needed certainty to health care providers and patients.” They believe an extension would also allow additional time for studies to be conducted on the impact of telehealth, which “could help inform Congress’s next steps on permanent telehealth legislation and appropriate program integrity and beneficiary protections.”

Therefore, the group is also asking to ensure that “an extension not include unnecessary statutory barriers in accessing telehealth services during this data collection and analysis period,” which could prevent people from getting essential care.

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Waymo sues to keep autonomous vehicle emergency protocols secret

Waymo has sued the California Department of Motor Vehicles. In a case first reported by The Los Angeles Times, the Alphabet subsidiary filed a complaint with the Sacramento County Superior Court on January 21st to prevent the agency from disclosing what it believes to be trade secrets.

At the center of the lawsuit is a public records request an unidentified party made to obtain Waymo’s driverless deployment application. Before sharing the requested documents, the DMV allowed the company to redact any sections it believed would reveal its trade secrets, including questions that were asked by the agency. When the DMV eventually forwarded the package to the requester, that individual or group challenged the redactions. The agency then contacted Waymo and invited the company to sue it to resolve the matter.

Some of the information Waymo wants to prevent from entering the public domain include details on how it plans to handle emergencies involving its autonomous vehicles. Another redacted section details the abilities of its Driver software to handle San Francisco’s tricky one-way streets and hills. The company began offering taxi service to a limited number of customers in San Francisco in August. Those vehicles operate with a backup human driver.

The company contends it has publicly shared almost all of the information contained in its application with the DMV. According to Waymo, the redactions involve technical details that touch on how it achieves the safety performance it has detailed in other public venues. Waymo claims that information could give a competitor an edge on it. The suit’s purpose here is to either forestall or completely prevent the disclosure of the requested information. As TheLos Angeles Times notes, resolution for these types of cases can take years.

“Every autonomous vehicle company has an obligation to demonstrate the safety of its technology, which is why we’ve transparently and consistently shared data on our safety readiness with the public,” a spokesperson for Waymo told Engadget. “We will continue to work with the DMV to determine what is appropriate for us to share publicly and hope to find a resolution soon.”

The DMV declined to comment on the case, but said it’s currently reviewing the complaint. 

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The FAA has reached a deal with Verizon and AT&T for C-Band 5G at airports

The Federal Aviation Administration says it has reached an agreement with AT&T and Verizon (Engadget’s former parent company) regarding the rollout of their C-Band 5G networks at and around airports. The agency said the three sides have found common ground “on steps that will enable more aircraft to safely use key airports while also enabling more towers to deploy 5G service.”

According to the FAA, the providers offered “more precise data about the exact location of wireless transmitters and supported more thorough analysis of how 5G C-Band signals interact with sensitive aircraft instruments.” The agency said it used the data to “determine that it is possible to safely and more precisely map the size and shape of the areas around airports where 5G signals are mitigated, shrinking the areas where wireless operators are deferring their antenna activations. This will enable the wireless providers to safely turn on more towers as they deploy new 5G service in major markets across the United States.”

The accord follows a months-long tussle between airlines and wireless providers over C-Band 5G. AT&T and Verizon voluntarily delayed the rollout for six weeks to address concerns that their services could interfere with aircraft systems and electronics, due to C-Band frequencies being close to ones used by altimeters. 

Earlier this month, the CEOs of airlines including Delta, United and Southwest claimed in a letter to the federal government that the networks could affect their planes’ instruments and lead to a “catastrophic” event. 

AT&T and Verizon activated their C-Band 5G networks last week after agreeing to create temporary buffer zones around dozens of airports — they haven’t switched on C-Band 5G towers within two miles of some runways. They also argued that similar networks have been deployed in 40 other countries without issue.

It’s not clear when AT&T and Verizon plan to turn on C-Band 5G towers closer to airports following the FAA agreement. The providers declined to comment.  

The CTIA, a trade association for the wireless industry, was bullish about the news. “This is a positive development that highlights the considerable progress the wireless industry, aviation industry, FAA and FCC are making to ensure robust 5G service and safe flights,” CTIA chief communications officer Nick Ludlum told Engadget in a statement.

Meanwhile, the FAA said it would continue discussions with helicopter operators and other stakeholders in the aviation industry “to ensure they can safely operate in areas of current and planned 5G deployment.”

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