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FCC moves ahead with relaunch of COVID-19 telehealth program

Round 2 contains a number of tweaks that seek to address disparities and distribute funding to more areas.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

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

This week, the Federal Communications Commission voted to move forward with Round 2 of the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, a $249.95 million federal initiative that builds on the $200 million program established as part of the CARES Act.

The telehealth program was established with the intent of supporting providers' efforts to continue serving patients by providing telecommunications services, information services and all of the necessary connected devices during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The new application window is expected to open within 30 days of the order, and the FCC will provide notice in advance of that date.

FCC Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in the relaunch announcement that telehealth technology is a vital component of curbing inequities in access to healthcare services.

"The pandemic has affected communities both large and small throughout the country, from our urban centers to our most rural corners," said Rosenworcel. "Round 2 of this program will mirror this far-reaching impact to better ensure that each state and territory can be approved for funding."

WHAT'S THE IMPACT?

Rather than operating through grants, the COVID-19 Telehealth Program is instead a reimbursement program that tasks providers with submitting invoice forms and other documentation to receive compensation for telehealth-related expenses.

The initial $200 million was appropriated last year by Congress through the CARES Act and helped to kick-start the program through the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau. The agency ran out of money in July 2020 after issuing awards to 539 applicants. The initial program sought to combat the COVID-19 crisis by bankrolling telecommunications equipment and services for qualifying healthcare providers.

Round 2 contains a number of tweaks, including a system for rating applicants that prioritizes hard-hit and low-income areas, tribal communities and those in provider shortage areas, as well as projects that were not approved during Round 1.

The application deadline is meant to ensure that projects are reviewed all at the same time, rather than as they're submitted, as was the case in the first round. Funding will be awarded in two phases.

This two-phase system was devised to facilitate speedier funding to approved projects, and to give other projects breathing room to submit more information to qualify in time for the second phase.

The initial program funded projects in 47 states but left out Alaska, Hawaii and Montana. That will be corrected this time around, according to the FCC.

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 the 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 month 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.

In comments made March 31 about the White House's proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, a senior Biden Administration official said increasing access to broadband Internet is a top goal moving forward – though the plan has received pushback from GOP officials who decry the idea of taxing corporations and the rich to pay for it.

"Right now, you know, we've seen in this crisis families who lack access to Internet, lack access to the modern economy," the official said. "Internet is the electricity of the 21st century. This plan would achieve the goal of universal access to affordable broadband in this decade.

"We've seen in stark terms the impact that our ailing and aging electric power system applies to our economy and to our families, costing families billions of dollars every year."
 

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