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With the last of the COVID-19 Telehealth Program awards handed out, the Federal Communications Commission is ready to review the $200 million program’s effectiveness and move on to the Connected Care Pilot.

By Eric Wicklund

July 10, 2020 – The Federal Communications Commission has drained its $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program.

Wednesday’s announcement of the final 25 funding applications for the program puts an end to a federal effort to support healthcare providers in expanding connected health services to address the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In all, the agency approved 539 funding applications from 47 states, Washington DC and Guam, missing only Hawaii, Alaska and Montana.

“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.”

The program, carved out of the CARES Act in late March, hasn’t been without controversy.

Telehealth advocates had lobbied to include dental practices and for-profit healthcare providers in the pool of candidates, and lawmakers have sought to pressure the FCCmore recently for information on how qualifying applications were chosen, what factors caused some to be left off the list and whether providers are getting the funding they’ve been promised.

In addition, the American Telemedicine Association petitioned Congressional leaders in April to add $300 million to the program, as part of a list of requests to expand telehealth access and coverage to address the pandemic.  

Finally, some Twitter chatter this week said that despite the variety of providers included in the 14 funding announcements, preference was given to large health systems – some of which received the maximum $1 million awards – while community health centers, rural health centers, federally qualified health centers and small practices received limited support.

In a letter last month to lawmakers, Pai defended management of the program, saying the “decision-making has been meaningfully informed by collaboration and consultation,” in particular with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research 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,” he added. “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.”

The final list includes, once again, a variety of providers, such as the California Telehealth Network, the Cook County Medical Services District in Sundance, WY, the Guam Community Health Center, Maryland’s Medstar Health, NewYork-Presbyterian’s Hudson Valley Hospital, MultiCare Associates in Tacoma, WA, and the Oregon Community Health Information Network (OCHIN).

The COVID-19 Telehealth Program wasn’t a grant program, but a reimbursement program. To receive disbursements, healthcare providers are required to submit an invoicing form and supporting documentation to receive reimbursement for eligible telemedicine and mHealth expenses and services.

While this program is done, FCC officials point to several other efforts to improve telehealth and mHealth access, particularly in creating guidelines and funding for broadband access. In March, the agency presented final rules for the Connected Care Pilot Program, a $100 million program unveiled in 2019 to advance connected health programs to benefit rural populations and veterans.

That program would provide funding to selected pilot connected health projects to cover 85 percent of eligible costs for broadband connectivity, equipment and information services.

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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