FCC enacts $200M telehealth initiative to ease COVID-19 burden on hospitals

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The FCC has developed and approved a $200 million program to fund telehealth services and devices for medical providers, just a week or so after the funding was announced. Hospitals and other health centers will be able to apply for up to $1 million to cover the cost of new devices, services and personnel.

The unprecedented $2 trillion CARES Act includes heavy spending on all kinds of things, from direct payments to out-of-work citizens to bailouts for airlines and other big businesses. Among the many, many funding items was a $200 million earmarked for the FCC with which it was instructed to improve and subsidize telehealth services around the country.

Telehealth comprises many services, from something as simple as making appointments online, to using internet-connected monitoring devices, to conducting an entire primary care visit via video chat. The latter is an incredibly important option for doctors and nurses who not only need to avoid direct contact with potentially sick patients if possible, but also need every spare minute they can muster.

“The toll this pandemic is taking on our healthcare system is clear. To the extent that connectivity solutions can provide immediate assistance with remote care and monitoring, we should use them. There is already evidence across the country that this works,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement accompanying the order.

Unfortunately telehealth systems are by no means simple or easy to implement, given that they must not only meet highly stringent privacy requirements like HIPAA, but also be effortless to use for people who might not use video chat for any other purpose. Setting aside space, equipment, budget, and so on for telehealth operations is difficult and time-consuming in the best of times, let alone when care centers are overwhelmed and understaffed. Even hospitals that provide some telehealth services are likely to find demand far outstripping supply right now.

The $200 million FCC program is aimed at mitigating this as simply and quickly as possible. “I’m hard-pressed these days to think of any better use case for the agency’s mission of advancing connectivity than telemedicine,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement.

As the order, passed unanimously today, describes it:

The support provided through the COVID-19 Telehealth Program will help eligible health care providers purchase telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services, whether for treatment of coronavirus or other health conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Eligible” in this case means on the following list of types of organizations or combinations thereof:

  • Medical schools and teaching hospitals
  • Community health centers and migrant care centers
  • Local health agencies and departments
  • Community mental health centers
  • Not-for-profit hospitals
  • Rural health clinics
  • Skilled nursing facilities (e.g. long term care facilities)

Any given entity may be awarded up to $1 million in funding depending on its need and reach. Priority is being given to areas especially hard-hit by the virus and chronically underfunded places like clinics in poor neighborhoods that subsist on Medicare payments and the like.

There are a few restrictions as to what the funds can be used for — for instance, only internet-connected monitoring devices are covered, not ordinary “offline” ones that the patient must relay the results from via other services. But the general idea is to stay flexible and let the recipients of this money decide what to do with it.

Rosenworcel tempered her hopeful remarks with some practical feedback for the order, which was by necessity somewhat rushed.

“This is a well-intended effort, but it lacks clear performance metrics,” she said. “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.”

Better, of course, that the money is available now and accounted for later, since we are presently in the throes of the crisis.

A second $100 million program was also authorized, by which money taken from the FCC’s main budget takes a longer-term approach to engendering telehealth over the next two years. That program differs in some key ways (not covering connected devices, for one) and will play out in slower fashion but provide ongoing support.

The FCC has several ongoing efforts to “Keep Americans Connected,” as it puts it, from institutional programs like this one to extracting promises from broadband providers not to fine people for data overages or late payments. You can find a list of its work here.