Over the last month, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or the “Commission”) has taken a flurry of COVID-19 pandemic-related actions aimed at increasing access to telehealth and making it easier for carriers to voluntarily assist K‑12 schools, libraries, and health care providers as they respond to COVID-19. Most dramatically, the Commission voted on April 2, 2020, to establish a $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program with funding authorized by Congress under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act (signed into law on March 27). The Commission, in the same order, launched the long-awaited $100 million Connected Care Pilot Program.
Less than two weeks after voting out the COVID-19 Telehealth Program order, the Commission was accepting applications on a rolling basis, with the first $3 million in funding approvals coming within days. Funding 100% of the cost of an array of equipment and services with no competitive bidding requirement (unlike in the Rural Health Care (“RHC”) Program and the Connected Care Pilot Program), this program is close to being a grant program.
Funding is available for eligible equipment and services purchased between March 13 and September 30, 2020 (assuming the funding is available). Generally, “connected care services” that use broadband-enabled technologies to deliver remote medical services directly to patients are eligible for funding in the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. These include:
- Telecommunications and broadband connectivity services: voice & internet connectivity services for health care providers and their patients.
- Information services: remote patient monitoring platforms and services; patient-reported outcome platforms; store and forward services (asynchronous transfer of patient images and data for interpretation by a physician; platforms and services to provide synchronous video consultation).
- Internet Connected Devices/Equipment: tablets, smartphones, or connected devices that enable connected care services at home (g., blood pressure monitor that is broadband-enabled, etc.)
- Excludes unconnected devices that patients use at home and then share results with their doctors remotely.
Health care providers eligible to receive COVID-19 Telehealth funding are the same as in the RHC, except that non-rural eligible health care providers can receive funding without the need to be part of a mostly-rural consortium. The Universal Service Administration Company (“USAC”) is responsible for determining eligibility but is not otherwise involved in the COVID-19 funding process. If you are interested in applying for this money, carefully review the information on the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program webpage and proceed as quickly as possible.
The Connect Care Pilot Program is a fundamentally different program, notwithstanding that it was launched jointly with the COVID-19 program. First, Connected Care is a discount program, providing an 85% subsidy for eligible services after a certified competitive bid process (similar to the traditional RHC universal service program). Proposed pilot projects will apply to the FCC for pre-approval, after which they will apply to USAC for funding commitments. Applications are due to the FCC the later of July 31, 2020, or 45 days after the rules become effective.
Proposed projects must be “primarily focused on treating public health epidemics, opioid dependency, mental health conditions, high-risk pregnancy, or chronic or recurring conditions that typically require at least several months to treat, including, but not limited to, diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, heart disease, and stroke recovery.” There is a “strong” preference for pilot projects “that can demonstrate that they will primarily benefit veterans or low-income individuals” and that have either (1) experience with providing telehealth or connected care services to patients or (2) a partnership with another health care provider, government agency, or designated telehealth resource center with such experience.
Lastly, to generally assist K-12 schools, libraries, and health care providers during the COVID-19 emergency, the Commission on March 18, 2020, waived the gift rules for both the E-rate and RHC programs through September 30, 2020. The scope of this waiver is broad, permitting (¶ 7):
service providers to offer [free of charge], and eligible RHC and E-Rate entities to solicit and accept, improved capacity, Wi-Fi hotspots, networking gear, or other things of value to assist health care providers, schools, and libraries as well as doctors and patients, teachers, students, school administrators, and librarians and patrons during the coronavirus outbreak. These gifts could include but are not limited to free upgrades to connections, connected devices, equipment, and other services for RHC program participants who provide care via telemedicine and free broadband connections, devices, or other services that support remote learning for students and teachers who will be taking classes at and providing instruction from home as a result of COVID-19.
The Commission in both E-rate and RHC also extended programmatic deadlines for filing funding applications, appeals, invoicing, service delivery, and information requests, as well as waived certain rules regarding contract extensions. If you intend to take advantage of any of these extensions of waivers, please consult these orders carefully.