Policy, Health IT, Health Tech

FCC proposes $200M telehealth program to tackle Covid-19

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai rolled out plans for a $200 million fund to help healthcare providers purchase telehealth tools to handle Covid-19. Commissioners still must approve the fund before providers can submit their proposals.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai unveiled plans for telehealth funding on Monday. His proposal would set aside $200 million to help healthcare providers purchase technology and broadband connectivity for telehealth services.

Congress appropriated $200 million to the FCC for this effort last week, as part of its $2 trillion Covid-19 relief package under the CARES Act. The program still must be approved by the FCC’s five-person commission.

Federal agencies have pushed to loosen telehealth restrictions in an effort to minimize transmission of Covid-19. Last week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services loosened limitations on telehealth reimbursement, allowing seniors to receive telehealth appointments at home. Many private insurers have also been directing members to telehealth services.

Health systems that already have telehealth systems in place have been able to quickly repurpose those tools to care for patients with chronic conditions that might be wary of walking into a hospital right now. They’ve also been rolling out digital tools to triage patients, keeping those with symptoms resembling Covid-19 away from other patients with urgent conditions.

But for practices that are implementing these tools for the first time often face difficulties with varying state regulations and the cost of implementation. Hospitals and outpatient practices especially face losses as elective procedures are cancelled to reserve space and equipment for Covid-19 patients.

Under the program, healthcare providers would submit streamlined applications to the FCC. Those selected would receive full funding for eligible telehealth services and devices. The FCC would continue to award funds on a rolling basis until the $200 million fund runs out or the pandemic ends.

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“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,” Pai said in a news release. “Our nation’s health care providers are under incredible, and still increasing, strain as they fight the pandemic. My plan for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program is a critical tool to address this national emergency.”

Pai also is seeking approval for a separate pilot program that would make funds available over a longer term to help offset the cost of telehealth services. The program would designate $100 million for connected care services provided to low-income patients and veterans.  It’s proposed as an extension of the Universal Service Fund, which is normally used to provide internet and cell service to rural areas, schools and low-income households.

If approved, it would cover 85% of the costs needed for broadband connectivity and IT services needed to provide telehealth to the intended patient group.


Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images