The FCC has developed and approved a $ 200 million program to fund telemedical services and equipment for medical providers, about a week after the funding was announced. Hospitals and other health centers can apply for up to $ 1 million to cover the cost of new equipment, services, and personnel.
The unprecedented $ 2 trillion CARES law includes high spending on everything from direct payments to unemployed citizens to bailouts for airlines and other large companies. The many, many funding items included $ 200 million earmarked for the FCC to instruct it to improve and subsidize telehealth services across the country.
Telemedicine encompasses many services, from simple appointments online to the use of surveillance devices with an Internet connection to an entire visit to the primary care via video chat. The latter is an incredibly important option for doctors and nurses who not only need to avoid direct contact with potentially sick patients wherever possible, but also need every free minute they can spend.
“The consequences of this pandemic for our healthcare system are clear. To the extent that connectivity solutions can provide instant remote maintenance and monitoring support, we should use them. There is already evidence across the country that this works, ”said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement attached to the order.
Unfortunately, telehealth systems are by no means simple or easy to implement, as they not only have to meet very strict data protection requirements such as HIPAA, but can also be easily used for people who may not be using video chat for other purposes. At the best of times, it is difficult and time consuming to provide space, equipment, budget, etc. for telemedicine operations, let alone when the care centers are overwhelmed and understaffed. Even hospitals that offer some telehealth services are likely to find that demand is currently far outstripping supply.
The $ 200 million FCC program is designed to mitigate this as easily and quickly as possible. "I am hardly able to imagine a better use case today for the agency's mission to promote connectivity than telemedicine," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement.
As the order passed today unanimously describes:
Support from the COVID-19 telemedicine program will help eligible healthcare providers purchase telecommunications services, information services, and equipment necessary to provide critical related care services, whether for the treatment of coronaviruses or other health conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.
In this case, "eligible" means in the following list of types of organizations or combinations thereof:
- Medical schools and teaching hospitals
- Community health centers and migrant care centers
- Local health agencies and departments
- Community psychiatric centers
- Nonprofit hospitals
- Clinics for rural health
- Qualified care facilities (e.g. long-term care facilities)
Each company can receive up to $ 1 million in funding, depending on their needs and reach. Priority is given to areas particularly affected by the virus and chronically under-funded locations such as clinics in poor areas that thrive on Medicare payments and the like.
There are some limitations to what the funds can be used – for example, only monitoring devices connected to the Internet are covered, not ordinary "offline" devices, from which the patient has to forward the results via other services. However, the general idea is to stay flexible and let the recipients of this money decide what to do with it.
Rosenworcel tempered her hopeful comments with some practical feedback for the job, which was necessarily a bit rushed.
"This is a well-intentioned effort, but it lacks clear performance metrics," she said. “This means that funds will be paid out without a system for measuring results or a plan for what comes after the end of this pilot program. In addition, it does not focus on a specific health care problem. "
It would be better, of course, that the money is now available and booked later because we are currently in crisis.
A second $ 100 million program has also been approved, which will use funds drawn from the FCC's main budget to pursue a longer-term approach to tele-health over the next two years. This program differs in some essential points (on the one hand not for connected devices) and is played more slowly, but offers ongoing support.
The FCC is making several ongoing efforts to "keep the Americans connected", from institutional programs like this to the promise of broadband providers not to punish people for data breaches or late payments. You can find a list of his work here.