The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently approved the relaunch of the COVID-19 Telehealth Program on March 30, 2021, setting in motion the next round of awards for providers and healthcare organizations. The announcement means that providers and entities providing telehealth services can begin applying for program funding.
The COVID-19 Telehealth Program was first established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) in March 2020 with an initial infusion of $200 million in federal funding for the program. According to the FCC, the COVID-19 Telehealth Program provides direct financial and technical support by funding “telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services.” While most COVID-19 telehealth funding opportunities are grant-based, this program reimburses providers for actual telehealth-related expenses incurred as a result of the pandemic. Funds are distributed as reimbursements for these eligible expenses.
The Appropriations Act of 2021 passed in late December 2020 authorized nearly $250 million in second round funding for the program and directed the FCC to improve the transparency and fairness of its application review process. In the Summer of 2020, concerns were raised by lawmakers about how the first round of funds were distributed under the program. In particular, lawmakers expressed concerns that the FCC did not disclose the entities that had received funding and that some providers in medically underserved areas could not obtain funding under the program. Congress explicitly directed the FCC to develop a more equitable application review process and to fund providers and entities from all 50 U.S. states and territories, with an emphasis on providers serving underserved populations.
After receiving public input on the second round, the FCC announced that it will prioritize applicants from areas with provider shortages and those that have been hit hardest by COVID-19, such as low-income and Tribal communities. The application process will also include objective evaluation criteria and a formal application deadline to ensure fair competition. In its March 30, 2021 announcement, the FCC stated that the application window will open in 30 days.
The COVID-19 Telehealth Program is one of several connected health funding opportunities introduced by the FCC in recent years and in response to COVID-19. The FCC’s Connected Care Pilot Program provides $100 million in funding over a three-year period to support broadband connectivity and network equipment for telehealth providers serving low-income areas and veterans.