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04.03.2020 Legal News

FCC Announces Application Process for Multi-Million Dollar Telehealth Funding During COVID-19 Pandemic

Following a $200 million appropriation by Congress in the CARES Act, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to adopt FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s “COVID-19 Telehealth Program” to immediately allow eligible health care providers to apply for funding for telehealth equipment and services to combat COVID-19.  The COVID-19 Telehealth Program contemplates a mandatory application process through which providers can receive telehealth funding on a rolling basis until the funds are depleted or the COVID-19 pandemic abates.

The FCC has also approved a separately-funded $100 million initiative to be known as the “Connected Care Pilot Program” which will likewise allow interested parties to apply for funding for universal service support over three years to help cover eligible costs of providing telehealth services, especially for veterans and those with lower incomes.

Those eligible for funding are nonprofit and public eligible health care providers that fall within eight categories: (1) post-secondary educational institutions offering health care instruction, teaching hospitals, and medical schools; (2) community health centers or health centers providing health care to migrants; (3) local health departments or agencies; (4) community mental health centers; (5) not-for-profit hospitals; (6) rural health clinics; (7) skilled nursing facilities; or (8) consortia of health care providers consisting of one or more entities falling into the first seven categories.

COVID-19 Telehealth Program: Preparing Now to Apply

Providers interested in seeking a share of the $200 million provided for in the COVID-19 Telehealth Program must submit an application that, at a minimum, contains the following information:[1]

  • Name, address, county, and health care provider number (if available), and, for applications involving multiple health care providers, the name of the lead health care provider.
  • Contact information for the individual responsible for the application (telephone number, mailing address, and email address).
  • Description of the provider’s goals and objectives, including the anticipated connected care services to be provided, the patient population, the conditions to be treated, the COVID-19 impact in the target area, and the approximate number of patients that could be treated by connected care services during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • If the provider proposes to use the funding to treat non-COVID-19 patients, a description of how connected care services are expected to free resources to treat COVID-19 patients and/or how telehealth would otherwise prevent, prepare for, or respond to the virus by, for example, facilitating social distancing.
  • Description of the requested telecommunications services, information services, or “devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services,” the total amount of funding requested, as well as the total monthly amount of funding requested for each eligible item.
  • Description of all types of devices for which funding is requested, how the devices are integral to patient care, and whether the devices are for patient use or for the health care provider’s use.  Monitoring devices (e.g., pulse-ox, BP monitoring devices) will only be funded if they are themselves connected.
  • Supporting documentation for costs, such as vendor or service provider quotes, invoices, or similar information.
  • A timeline for deployment and a summary of the factors to be tracked to measure the real impact of supported services and devices.

Interested health care providers should begin work on their applications now, as the FCC can be expected to move rapidly to fund telehealth initiatives in the nation’s hardest-hit areas.  Each applicant should also explain how quickly it expects to roll out telehealth capabilities, as the FCC is likely to prefer applicants who project expeditious implementation.  Applicants should note that, as a prerequisite for applying, providers must obtain/present eligibility determinations per FCC Form 460 from the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), which administers the Universal Service Fund under the direction of the FCC.

Connected Care Pilot Program: Preparing Now to Apply

A similar but distinct application process will govern the award of funds under the FCC’s Connected Care Pilot Program (the “Pilot Program”).  The Pilot Program application process is not as streamlined as the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, although much of the needed information will be common to both Programs.

The FCC will exercise a strong preference for pilot projects demonstrating a primary benefit to veterans or low-income individuals.  The Pilot Program will fund 85% of the qualifying costs of (1) patient broadband Internet access services, (2) health care provider broadband data connections, (3) other connected care information services, and (4) certain network equipment.

In addition to the information required by the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, among other things, Pilot Program applicants will be expected to describe their past experience with telehealth, document a proven track record and platform from which to expand telehealth offerings, identify conditions to be treated (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, and high-risk pregnancy), provide financial information, and document community partnerships and other funding sources such as local governments or universities.

The Critical Role of Telehealth

Much has changed since February 2020, when FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr made a whirlwind tour through North Carolina including visits to the telehealth operations at Duke University Hospital and Well Care Health. See here. Under the leadership of Chairman Pai and Commissioner Carr, telehealth has moved to the forefront across the country as citizens avoid person-to-person contact to minimize the spread of COVID-19.  Telehealth services are emerging as a critical resource allowing care for both confirmed COVID-19 patients as well as those who need health care services but fear exposure to the virus.  Expansion of telehealth is a meaningful step in reducing the risk for front-line health care professionals.  Through the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program and the Connected Care Pilot Program, significant funding will be made available to eligible applicants seeking to bring telehealth into the health care arena.

Please note: This alert contains general, condensed summaries of actual legal matters, statutes and opinions for information purposes. It is not meant to be and should not be construed as legal advice. Readers with particular needs on specific issues should retain the services of competent counsel.

Please click here for additional legal updates from Williams Mullen regarding COVID-19. 

[1] An application form will be made available after approval by the Office of Management and Budget.  Applicants may request that any materials or information submitted to the FCC in their applications be withheld from public inspection.