Health systems will be able to apply for funding from the Federal Communications Commission to help them rollout telehealth programs in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The FCC adopted a $200 million program using funds from the $2 trillion stimulus package that passed last week, that can be distributed to healthcare providers to help them get broadband internet and devices needed for telehealth services.

Everyone from academic hospitals to community clinics and nursing homes would be available to apply for funding. The FCC began accepting requests after it approved the program on Thursday and will approve them on a rolling basis until the pandemic ends or the money runs out.

The five-person commission quickly approved the program on Thursday, just a few days after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had proposed it.

“Connected care can help us treat coronavirus patients, enable patients with other conditions to get care while maintaining social distancing, and protect health care professionals from greater exposure,” Pai said in a statement.  “The FCC has an important role to play in achieving that result.  Indeed, I’m hard-pressed these days to think of any better use case for the agency’s mission of advancing connectivity than telemedicine.”

The FCC also approved a separate, $100 million pilot program, that would be used over a three-year period to help offset telehealth services provided to low-income patients and veterans. Some of the organizations that can apply include nonprofit hospitals and community mental health centers; for-profit and investor-owned hospitals cannot apply for funding.

Those funds would be distributed through the FCC’s Universal Services Fund, which is normally used to cover internet and cell service for schools, libraries, rural areas and low-income households. In this case, they would cover 85% of the costs for broadband connectivity and IT services.

Commissioner Brendan Carr had been working to develop the pilot program for the last two years, long prior to the pandemic. That framework was used to quickly put together the $200 million telehealth fund for Covid-19.

“These tools help bring medical care directly to patients, no matter where they are.  It’s the health care equivalent of moving from Blockbuster to Netflix,” he said in a statement. “For years, the FCC has focused its telehealth work on funding high-speed connections to brick and mortar facilities.  While that important work continues, I thought it was important that the FCC start a proceeding that supports this new trend in telehealth towards connected care everywhere.”

Telehealth companies such as Teladoc, MDLIVE and AmWell have seen a surge in demand as a result of the pandemic. Hospitals are also seeing record levels through their own telehealth programs. If the tone set by regulators is any indication, many more patients may see their doctor online in the future.

Photo credit: Teladoc

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