FCC moves to establish a $200 million telehealth fund for hospitals

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

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The Federal Communications Commission is working to create a $200 million fund for hospitals to enhance telehealth networks as they struggle to serve coronavirus patients.

The fund is essentially a grant program that will allow nonprofit, educational and other approved hospitals responding to the pandemic to quickly apply and receive funding up to $1 million to support telehealth networks. Hospitals will be able to purchase a range of technology, from endpoint devices, telecommunications services and broadband connectivity, according to the FCC. For-profit hospitals will not be eligible to apply, a senior FCC official said.

The funding comes from the recently passed emergency funding bill. Hospitals will be able to apply to receive money after the FCC officially adopts the proposal and the Office of Management and Budget approves procedural elements of the fund, according to a senior FCC official.

Hospitals are moving as many visits as possible to virtual formats to keep non-coronavirus patients away as the rate of infections continues to grow. Many hospitals are not set up to carry out this level of telehealth activity, prompting the FCC’s request for extra money to assist hospitals. The guidelines on what can be purchased with the funds are purposely broad. According to the senior FCC official, medical centers will be able purchase a range of technology that fits each hospitals’ needs best.

“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,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement urging his fellow commissioners to swiftly pass the measure, which is likely to happen.

The fund will remain in effect until it is depleted. Money awarded will be used to cover 100 percent of the costs hospitals apply to cover, but no single hospital will get more than $1 million in funding, according to the senior FCC official. The FCC is also loosening restrictions against rural hospitals and libraries receiving below-market-rate telecommunications services. The move will allow rural hospitals and libraries that work with the FCC through the E-rate program and Rural Health Care Network to receive reduced-price communications technology from the private sector that in other times could be seen as inappropriate.

Other hospital systems are switching to maximum telehealth as well. The Department of Veterans Affairs requested funds in the emergency spending bill to be spent on purchasing 180,000 new devices to extend telehealth and teleworking options.

OSTP wants to make it easier

Also on Thursday, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy announced a new website for medical practitioners and patients to find telemedicine technology. The website, TechHealthDirectory.com, includes services like remote monitoring, mental health, medical devices, and others, according to a news release.

The website is hosted on Amazon Web Services’ cloud platform, company officials said. The website will be continuously updated as more resources become available.“We thank our Nation’s technology leaders for continued action as part of this truly whole-of-America response to the pandemic,” said Michael Kratsios, U.S. chief technology officer, in a statement.

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coronavirus, FCC, Federal Communications Commission, hospitals, telecommunications, telehealth
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