December 29, 2020 – The latest federal COVID-19 relief bill is giving new life to a program aimed at expanding telehealth through better broadband connectivity.
The bill, signed by President Donald Trump this past weekend after Congressional passage, includes $250 million for the Federal Communications Commission’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program, as well as new guidelines for stricter federal oversight.
Created by the CARES Act in March, the program was designed to support healthcare providers across the country in expanding or developing connected health platforms to address the coronavirus pandemic. While applicants of all sizes sought support to buy telemedicine equipment and launch telehealth and remote patient monitoring services, particular emphasis was placed on efforts to expand broadband connectivity.
The program was shut down in July after exhausting its $200 million budget. In all, the FCC approved 539 funding applications from 47 states, Washington DC and Guam.
Connected health advocates and several members of Congress have been lobbying since then to keep the program going, arguing that it helps healthcare providers expand their broadband footprint and in turn expand telehealth programs.
Some lawmakers have also accused the FCC of mismanaging the program, and have questioned how the applications were selected, who was turned down and whether those selected to receive funding got the money they were promised.
According to an analysis of the almost-6,000-page bill by the Foley & Lardner law firm, the new program will include “increased oversight to the existing telehealth program to ensure funds are allocated to eligible applicants in each state and the District of Columbia such that not less than one applicant in each state (and the district) receives funding under the program, unless no such applicant is eligible from a state or the district.”
There is no word yet from the FCC on when or how that program will be restarted.
At the same time, the FCC is set to launch the Connected Care Pilot Program, a three-year, $100 million project unveiled in 2018 and aimed at expanding telehealth access for low-income Americans, veterans and other vulnerable populations.
The agency recently closed the window for applications to the program and will soon announce funding recipients.
“With advances in smartphones, tablets, and other connected devices, patients no longer need to visit brick-and-mortar facilities or meet in person with a doctor to receive high-quality care,” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who helped to develop the program and has long been an advocate of telehealth expansion, said in a press release last week. “Increasingly, patients can receive care whenever and wherever they have an Internet connection – whether for video visits or tracking a range of medical conditions.”
“It’s the healthcare equivalent of shifting from Blockbuster to Netflix,” he added.