The FCC has released a guidance document describing how healthcare providers can apply for money from a $200 million fund created to help them improve telehealth and mHealth programs to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic.

April 09, 2020 – The Federal Communications Commission has released guidance for healthcare providers applying for funding from the COVID-19 Telehealth Program.

The $200 million program, borne out of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was signed into law in March, aims to give providers the resources for improving connected health programs to patients in their homes and other remote locations. The funds will be used for telemedicine equipment, broadband connectivity and other resources.

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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,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a March 30 press 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.”

The six-page guidance document released by the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau on Wednesday lays out the several steps that providers must take to apply for funding. They include receiving eligibility determination from the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) for each provider site included in the application; obtaining an FCC registration number (FRN) in the Commission Registration System (CORES); and registering with the federal System for Award Management.

Eligible providers who have purchased telecommunications and/or telemedicine equipment after March 13 can apply for funding support for those and any subsequent purchases.

The FCC will soon make available an online portal for completing and submitting requests for funding. The web address and opening date for that portal will be posted on the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected page.

In addition to launching the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, the FCC has released final rules to stand up the Connected Care Pilot Program, a three-year, $100 million program run through the Universal Service Fund to benefit underserved populations, especially low-income residents and veterans. The FCC approved the proposal in July 2019 and has been gathering comments on the proposed project since then.

“The new Connected Care Pilot Program will help us to look to the future and determine how universal service support can shepherd telehealth services into a new era of healthcare delivery,” Pai said in an April 2 press release.

Not all the FCC Commissioners are in support of the Connected Cares Pilot Program. In a separate statement, Commissioner Michael O’Reilly criticized the agency for combining the two programs in one approval process, and said the pilot program “seems to have been half-cooked and rushed out the door to take advantage of the current crisis.”

“It’s bad enough when the federal government runs a ‘beauty contest’ to distribute funding, but the lack of even a points system here is completely unacceptable,” he said. “Who are we to criticize other agencies for skewed evaluation frameworks or technology bias, when we ourselves are about to run a $100 million program with zero objective criteria for how applications will be evaluated? This dearth of transparency and accountability appears very problematic, and certainly sets a bad precedent.”

“This is a well-intended effort, but it lacks clear performance metrics,” added Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who noted the pilot program wasn’t ordered by Congress but was developed by the FCC on its own. “That means it will disburse funds without a system for measuring outcomes or a plan for what comes after this pilot program reaches its end. Moreover, it does not focus on a specific problem in healthcare.”

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