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FCC issues guidelines for new round of a $250 million COVID-19 telehealth program

The proposal establishes a system for rating applications and equitable funding distribution.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

(Photo by Kilito Chan/Getty Images)(Photo by Kilito Chan/Getty Images)

Acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel circulated a proposal this week that, if adopted, would establish round 2 of the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, a $249.95 million dollar federal initiative that builds on the $200 million program established as part of the CARES Act.

The FCC's COVID-19 Telehealth Program supports healthcare providers by providing telecommunications services, information services and devices necessary to enact telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal establishes a system for rating applications, factoring in the hardest-hit and lowest-income areas, tribal communities, healthcare provider shortage areas and unfunded Round 1 applicants. It also seeks to promote equitable nationwide distribution of funding so that each state, territory and Washington will receive funding upon the program's inception.

Additionally, the proposal sets an application deadline to allow for a review of all applications in one round, as opposed to the rolling approval system used in round 1 of the program. It awards funding in two phases in order to satisfy the statutory requirement that applicants be given an opportunity to provide additional information if the application will initially be denied, and to award funding as soon as possible.

"If the past year has shown us anything, it's that telehealth technology is here to stay and can be a solution to help address inequities in access to healthcare services," said Rosenworcel.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

The FCC committed the $200 million appropriated as part of the CARES Act by issuing awards for 539 applications during round 1 of funding from April 16, 2020 through July 8, 2020. The initial program sought to combat the COVID-19 crisis by bankrolling telecommunications equipment and services for qualifying healthcare providers.

In December 2020, Congress appropriated an additional $249.95 million for the program as part of the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act. 

In January 2021, the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau sought public input on metrics to use when evaluating round 2 applications, on methods to ensure the equitable distribution of the additional funds and about improvements to the application process.

THE LARGER TREND

As a scalable alternative to in-person care, telehealth has been thrust into the spotlight during the long months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Major services have reported skyrocketing volumes of visits over the past year.

In September 2020, Doximity's 2020 State of Telemedicine Report found that last year virtual care was expected to account for more than 20% of all medical visits in the U.S., which in turn was projected to drive $29 billion in total healthcare services.

Up to $106 billion of current U.S. healthcare spend could be virtualized by 2023, the report found. This highlights the high rates of adoption among both patients and physicians, and the impetus felt among providers to offer safe, secure and easy-to-use virtual services as demand for telehealth continues to grow.

In August 2020, the National Poll on Healthy Aging found that patient comfort levels with telehealth have increased. Back in 2019, most older adults expressed at least one serious concern about trying a telehealth visit. But by mid-2020, the percentage with such concerns had eased.

Retail giant Amazon is even muscling into the telehealth arena, signaling its intention this week to expand its Amazon Care app-based telehealth services to its employees and to other companies across the U.S. – services that to date have only been available to the retail giant's Washington-based workforce.

Amazon will be joining with other telehealth apps that are entering the national stage. Digital retail pharmacy NowRx recently announced it would be expanding into telehealth, beginning with pre-exposure prophylaxis.

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com