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FCC unveils $200m telehealth scheme to tackle Covid-19

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The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Chairman (FCC), Ajit Pai, has unveiled a multi-million-dollar scheme to support the US health sector to procure the necessary infrastructure to deliver services during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Funded through the CARES Act, Pai announced a US$200 million package “to support health care providers’ use of telehealth services”, including the purchase of telecommunications services, information services, and “devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services during this emergency period”.

Following their application to the FCC, Pai said successful applicants will receive full funding for eligible services, “on a rolling basis until the funds are exhausted or until the current pandemic has ended”.

If adopted by the Commission, the services provided under the pilot would directly help COVID-19 patients and provide care to patients with other conditions who might risk contracting the coronavirus when visiting a healthcare provider—while reducing practitioners’ potential exposure to 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.  Our nation’s health care providers are under incredible, and still increasing, strain as they fight the pandemic,” said Pai.

FCC commissioners must still vote to approve the programme.

Long-term care

Ensuring the US telehealth sector continues to develop after the current pandemic, Pai also took the chance to detail a separate, three-year, $100 million Connected Care Pilot Program, intended to study the long-term role of telehealth.  

First announced in July 2019, the FCC is assessing how connected care “could be a permanent part of the Universal Service Fund by making available up to $100 million of universal service support to help defray eligible health care providers’ costs of providing telehealth services to patients at their homes or mobile locations, with an emphasis on providing those services to low-income Americans and veterans”. 

Funding for the pilot would be separate from the budgets of the existing Universal Service Fund programs and the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, with the pilot specifically covering 85% of the eligible costs of broadband connectivity, network equipment, and information services necessary to provide connected care services to the intended patient population. 

In order to participate, eligible health care providers can submit an application to the FCC, which will confirm where funding will be channelled.

“I am grateful to Chairman Pai for his leadership in accelerating this important initiative and for fast-tracking a COVID-19 Telehealth Program.  This decision will further strengthen the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and help Americans access high-quality healthcare without having to visit a hospital in person,” said FCC commissioner Brendan Carr.

As reported on the Capacity live blog, the FCC has also launched the Keep Americans Connected Initiative in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The initiative asks broadband and telephone service providers, and trade associations, to pledge:

  1. not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic;

  2. waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and

  3. open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.

More than 550 companies and associations have signed the pledge.