The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Wireline Competition Bureau announced Wednesday that it is requesting public comment for Round 2 distribution of an additional $249.95 million for its COVID-19 Telehealth Program; the Round 2 funding comes from the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021.
The FCC started the program in March 2020 with $200 million of CARES Act funding in order to help health care providers offer telehealth and other connected care services to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, the FCC committed the $200 million to 539 applicants in 47 states, Washington, D.C. and Guam. During this first round, the program supported eligible providers by “committing to fully fund the telecommunications services, information services, and connected devices necessary to provide critical telehealth and connected care services.” The FCC noted that it evaluated and awarded on a rolling basis, prioritized “funding applications that targeted areas that had been hardest hit by COVID-19 and where the support would have the most impact on addressing the community’s health care needs”; the first round of funding was spent by July 2020. The additional $249.95 million in funding will allow the FCC to continue to expand telehealth and connected care while allowing patients to access health care safely.
The FCC issued a notice seeking public comment on the metrics it should use to evaluate applications for Round 2 funding, how it should treat applications that were filed initially in spring 2020 using CARES Act funding, and additional improvements to the program. Sample questions include: “(S)hould we continue to target funding to hardest hit areas? If so, how should we define which areas have been ‘hardest hit’?”; “In Round 2, what weight should we give pre-existing strain faced by applicant health care providers? Should we distinguish pre-existing strain from pandemic-related strains many providers now face?”; “Should we prioritize health care providers serving a large percentage of COVID-19 patients?”; and “Should we prioritize applications from health care providers that seek funding to treat specific at-risk populations, such as Tribal, low-income, or rural communities?”
“Telehealth has been a critical factor in helping us address the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to have a devastating impact on the health of the American people,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said. “Last year, the FCC quickly stood up its COVID-19 Telehealth Program, allocating the full $200 million provided in the CARES Act to worthy telehealth projects across the country. We have already seen the program’s positive impact on expanding access to telehealth services across the country, from health clinics providing bi-lingual telehealth services to rural hospitals connecting with record numbers of remote patients. I’m pleased that this new support from Congress will enable us to extend this program into 2021. I am confident that our team at the Commission will work expeditiously to provide additional support for telehealth services through Round 2 of the program.”
The FCC noted that the public notice will be posted in the Federal Register with comments due January 19, 2021.