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FCC Runs Out of COVID-19 Telehealth Program Funding. What Now?

14 Jul, 2020

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced on July 8 that it had approved what was left of its $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program.

With last week’s 25 funding applications, the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program total of approved applications increased to 539 applications, including recipients in 47 states plus Washington, D.C. and Guam. The $200 million in funding was provided by Congress as part of the CARES Act in an effort to provide telehealth services during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“This final tranche of approved funding applications includes recipients in both urban and rural

areas of the country, and from coast to coast,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a press release. “We have already seen the program’s positive impact on expanding access to telehealth services and promoting the well-being of patients and healthcare providers across the country. And I look forward to seeing how those who are awarded funding today will help patients from New York to Guam, and Alabama to North Dakota.”

Despite some controversy pertaining to the program’s selection process for the type of telehealth providers as well as the funding amount provided by the program, including by the American Telemedicine Association, which petitioned Congressional leaders in April to add $300 million to the program, Pai has defended the FCC’s management of the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. 

“The agency’s decision-making has been meaningfully informed by collaboration and

Consultation,” Pai wrote in a letter to Senate lawmakers last month. “In particular, Commission staff consulted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and based on those discussions, Commission staff has identified ‘hardest-hit areas’ using data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.” 

“The steps we have taken thus far have been very well received, not least by the recipient

health care institutions and the communities they serve,” Pai said. “But we also want to assess after the Program’s conclusion how COVID-19 Telehealth Program funding was spent and lessons that could improve the Commission’s upcoming Connected Care Pilot Program. Participants are expected to report to the Commission on the effectiveness of this funding on health outcomes, patient treatment, health care facility administration, and any other relevant factors.” 

Structured as a reimbursement program, the COVID-19 Telehealth Program required healthcare providers to submit an invoicing form and supporting documentation to receive reimbursement for eligible telehealth and mHealth expenses and services.

Will the FCC Expand the COVID-19 Telehealth Program?

If Pai’s recent communication is any indication, it appears as if this is truly the end of the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. The FCC now is focusing on other efforts to improve healthcare provider’s access to telehealth and mHealth, particularly when it comes to creating funding and guidelines for broadband access. 

The Connected Care Pilot Program, which was first unveiled in 2019 but had final rules presented by the FCC in March, is a $100 million, 3-year program created to defray health care providers’ costs of providing connected care services, with a particular emphasis on supporting eligible low-income Americans and veterans.  

The Pilot Program would provide funding to selected pilot connected health projects to cover 85% of the eligible costs of broadband connectivity, network equipment, and information services necessary to provide connected care services to the intended patient population.

Other FCC efforts to support telehealth include the Rural Health Care Program, which recently received a boost in funding, and the Connect2Health Task Force.

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