FCC to deliver $200 million in telehealth relief to strained hospitals

Companies that provide a virtual connection between doctors and patients have reported significant spikes in traffic

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law on March 27, the Federal Communications Commission has received $200 million to allocate to enable healthcare providers to use telecommunications services. The primary focus for telecommunications regulators during the outbreak has been on the promotion telehealth and remote learning. Further, there has been an emphasis on improved broadband service availability, as well as ensuring that low-income customers will be able to keep their telephone and broadband service.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the funding will provide immediate support to healthcare providers as they switch over to virtual care, which is becoming increasingly critical as Americans continue to self-isolate to stop the spread of the virus

“As we self-isolate and engage in social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth will continue to become more and more important across the country,” Pai said in a press release, before acknowledging the “incredible and still increasing strain” under which healthcare workers find themselves.

Companies like Teladoc and Amwell, which run applications that virtually connect patients and doctors, have reported significant spikes in traffic. Teladoc, for instance has reported a 50% increase in daily patient visits.

While the funds will certainly provide some relief, they won’t be available to everyone. Instead, healthcare providers will need to apply for the assistance, and the winning applications will be given full funding for their telehealth projects on a rolling basis until the $200 million has been exhausted.

In addition, to address rural connectivity issues, specifically, the CARES Act gives the Department of Agriculture $25 million for its Distance Learning and Telemedicine program for rural areas and $100 million for its ReConnect Program to promote broadband deployment in rural areas.

The Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs is now also authorized to enter short-term contacts with telecommunications companies to expand mental health service to veterans through telehealth programs, and finally, the act gives $75 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Some additional steps that the FCC have taken as a response to the COVID-19 crisis include the approval of $100 million in Universal Service Fund money for a three-year Connected Care pilot program, which can pay up to 85% of broadband access costs to patients’ homes, allowing carriers to temporarily borrow or expand their access to spectrum and waving rules or extended deadlines that could have resulted in the deenrollment of Lifeline program, which provides lower cost communications services for low-income consumers.

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