FCC Approves Framework for $300M Telehealth Initiative

The FCC has approved plans to spend $300 million on telehealth, both to meet the current COVID-19 crisis and for a longer-term project. The vote came less than 48 hours after the proposal was circulated, yet another new normal as the government attempts to match the speed of the growing pandemic. 

The vote was unanimous on the COVID-19 crisis part but not on the pilot project.

A spokesperson for FCC chairman Ajit Pai confirmed that the FCC commissioners had voted to approve the chairman's framework for spending the $200 million in telehealth funding in the CARES Act COVID-19 aid package, which passed late last week, as well as spending $100 million for a telehealth pilot project using Universal Service Fund subsidies. 

Related: Berry Urges Vote of Telehealth Initiative 

The $200 million emergency plan would allow eligible healthcare providers to buy telecommunications broadband connectivity and devices, both to help COVID-19 patients, including those in self-isolation and quarantine, and others with underlying conditions who don't want to risk a trip to the doctor. 

There is no deadline for spending the money, which the FCC gets "until expended." It is to go to "prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally, including to support efforts of health care providers to address coronavirus by providing telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services during an emergency period."  

The money will be prioritized to areas hardest hit by COVID-19, including populations most in need of social distancing. 

According to senior FCC officials, the FCC does not expect to give out more than $1 million per grant. Eligible providers include nonprofit hospitals, medical schools, health departments, healthcare services for migrants, and others. 

Some for-profit hospitals may not be eligible due to the FCC's focus of what officials said was limited dollars to the most in need.  

The other $100 million is going to a three-year pilot project that would:  

1. "Provide universal service support to help defray health care providers’ qualifying costs of providing connected care services.  

2. "Target funding to eligible health care providers, with a primary focus on pilot projects that would primarily benefit low-income or veteran patients.  

3. "Make available up to $100 million, which would be separate from the budgets of the existing Universal Service Fund programs and the COVID-19 Telehealth Program.    

4. "Provide funding for selected pilot 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." 

That 85% coverage is a difference with the $200 million in the emergency program, which can be used to cover 100% of costs.  

Other big differences: 1) The pilot project will not cover device costs, which the FCC said it can't because the funding comes from USF rather than the COVID-19 relief bill. 2) Time being of the essence in a sheltered-at-home world, the emergency grants will be handed out on a rolling basis--the FCC won't wait until it gets all the applications in before starting to hand out money to qualified applicants-while in the pilot program, the FCC will wait until they are all in before deciding. 3) The emergency program is focused on COVID-19, while the pilot will target opioid abuse treatment and mental health and chronic diseases like diabetes. 4) In the emergency program, there will be no requirement for competitive bidding while there will be in the pilot program.  

The pilot proposal will also look at how the Connected Care program could be made a permanent part of the FCC's Universal Service Fund broadband/advanced telecom subsidy program. 

Commissioner O'Rielly said the emergency aid part was short on details an long on discretion, he could support it. But he had little good to say about the pilot."[T]he second part of the item—based on the very limited time I have had to review it—seems to have been half-cooked and rushed out the door to take advantage of the current crisis," he said.

"[W]hile I applaud Chairman Pai and the FCC for moving forward with the COVID-19 program expeditiously, I cannot endorse the decision to rush the Connected Care Pilot out the door in its current state. Therefore, I have voted to approve in part and dissent in part," O'Rielly said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.