A Federal Communications Commission plan to spend $300 million on telehealth is the latest in a series of steps taken to aid Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.
While direct government spending on healthcare services is usually poorly targeted, such temporary emergency programs with strict spending limits and strict oversight can actually save money compared to traditional in-person medical services offered by government insurers such as Medicare and Medicaid.
FCC commissioners unanimously approved Chairman Ajit Pai’s framework for spending $200 million in telehealth funding in the CARES Act passed by Congress in March. That money will go toward broadband connectivity and devices for healthcare providers to better enable them to connect to patients in self-isolation, with priority given to areas hardest hit by COVID-19. The FCC doesn’t anticipate awarding individual grants larger than $1 million.
“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 announcing the plan. “The nation’s healthcare providers are under incredible, and still increasing, strain as they fight the pandemic.”
The commission also approved by majority vote a $100 million telehealth pilot project funded by subsidies from the Universal Service Fund. This project would also provide funding for high-speed internet connectivity and equipment to help doctors offer connected care services.
This program covers 85 percent of costs compared to 100 percent for the money from the CARES Act and has a stronger focus on mental health, drug treatment and chronic diseases while the funding from the stimulus bill focuses on COVID-19.
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr previously told the Taxpayers Protection Alliance that connected care, a trend in telehealth that allows remote patient monitoring and secure email communications between doctors and patients, is growing more urgent during the current pandemic.
“COVID-19 shows that going to a physical facility is not always the best idea,” he said.
In another move related to telehealth, as well as education to help promote better broadband access during the pandemic, the FCC waived rules in its Rural Health Care and E-Rate programs until September 20. The rules, in an attempt to curb waste, fraud or abuse, forbid hospitals, schools and libraries that get subsidies from accepting or seeking anything of value from an internet service provider that participates in those programs.
CNET notes that internet service providers can now donate equipment such as Wi-Fi hotspots or offer free service upgrades with the rules relaxed.
The FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau also released a notice reminding authorized alert originators, including state and local governments, that the Wireless Emergency Alert system is available as a tool to provide integral information to the public during the pandemic.
Emergency situations can, unfortunately, bring out the worst in people, which is why the FCC created a page warning of phone scams related to coronavirus.
The commission reports it has heard complaints about bogus texts and robocalls offering free home testing kits, fake cures and health insurance pitches, with the originators seeking to obtain the personal information of the recipients.
The FCC advises people not to respond to calls or texts from unknown numbers, or numbers that seem suspicious, as well as to not share financial information, especially if the caller applies pressure to do so.
On his blog, Pai wrote that he is “committed to using every legal means at the FCC’s disposal to help Americans deal with the coronavirus pandemic.”
“Communications technologies are uniquely positioned to make a positive difference during this unprecedented moment, and my co-workers have done a lot to make this potential a reality,” he wrote.