FCC’s Telehealth Plans Reach Beyond COVID-19 Stimulus Bill Provision  

Adam Hoglund/Shutterstock.com

The moment has spurred the agency to also finalize a longer-term pilot project for connected care.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai circulated a draft order for implementing a $200 million telehealth program in line with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which President Trump signed into law Friday.

This could help free up resources in brick and mortar facilities for treating those infected by the novel coronavirus and reduce its spread by keeping potentially infected persons at home, senior FCC officials said on a call with reporters Monday. 

The officials said they hope commissioners will vote on the item as soon as possible. When the vote does occur, the Office of Management and Budget must approve the form applicants will use under the Paperwork Reduction Act. Then, once the item is published in the Federal Register, the agency’s wireline competition bureau can start processing applications.  

The FCC hopes to start distributing awards within the month for projects that would help patients receive health services remotely under the COVID-19 program. 

Prospective applicants must be associated with public or nonprofit institutions in order to be eligible for the funding, officials said. Appropriate health care providers would include entities such as teaching hospitals and medical schools, community health centers providing health care to immigrants, and skilled nursing facilities. Consortia of health care providers where one or more members are public or not-for-profit would also be eligible.   

Also in the draft order is final language for a pilot program that would make $100 million available for telehealth projects from the Universal Service Fund—money collected from fees on consumers’ phone bills to expand broadband coverage to underserved communities. The connected care pilot would aim to help low-income Americans and veterans.

The commission approved a proposal for the pilot program last July and had been taking public comments on it, till now.

“Our nation’s health care providers are under incredible, and still increasing, strain as they fight the pandemic,” Pai said in a press release Monday. “As we self-isolate and engage in social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth will continue to become more and more important across the country.”  

Different Processes for Different Programs

The senior FCC officials shared details on both the COVID-19 program and the pilot project, noting some key differences between the two initiatives.

While officials noted they are hoping OMB will use emergency procedures to approve the application form for the COVID-19 program given the special circumstances, no such allowance is expected for the pilot project.

Money for the COVID-19 program will be available until it or the pandemic is exhausted. The pilot project is meant to run over the course of three years.

In the interest of getting the funds out faster, the FCC plans to process applicants for the COVID-19 program on a rolling basis, making awards as applications come in, officials said. Awards for the pilot project will all be made all at once following a set deadline.

Officials said, unlike with the pilot project, the process for the COVID-19 program would not involve a competitive bidding process and that they don’t anticipate any single award would exceed a million dollars, in order to encourage many applicants to participate. 

Another significant difference is that while the COVID-19 program would allow applicants to use funds to purchase connected devices for monitoring patients, the pilot project will not. Under both programs, funds can be used to purchase telecommunications and information services. Also, the COVID-19 program would cover 100% of the costs of a telehealth project while the pilot project would cover 85 % of total costs.

FCC officials said they would make funding decisions for the COVID-19 program by prioritizing areas that the virus has hit hardest and projects geared toward high-risk and vulnerable patients.

The pilot program, officials said,  will target funding toward projects that are primarily focused on treating public health epidemics, opioid dependency, mental health conditions, high-risk pregnancy, or chronic or recurring conditions that typically require at least several months to treat, including but not limited to diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, heart disease and stroke recovery. 

Help us understand the situation better. Are you a federal employee or contractor with information about how your agency is handling the coronavirus? Email us at newstips@nextgov.com.