FCC moves forward with $250M telehealth program with a focus on equitable distribution

An elderly woman has a virtual visit with her doctor
The Federal Communications Commission approved $250 million in new funding to cover the costs of providers' telecommunications services, information services, and connected devices necessary to enable telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jean-philippe WALLET/Getty Images)

The Federal Communications Commission this week unanimously approved a process for distributing nearly $250 million to help healthcare providers deliver telehealth services.

The second round of funding (PDF) for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program builds on the $200 million program established as part of the CARES Act last year.

The funding will cover the costs of providers' telecommunications services, information services, and connected devices necessary to enable telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency said it expects to begin accepting health care providers’ applications for the funds within 30 days.

"This past year has proven, without a doubt, that telehealth technology is critical to helping address inequities in access to health care services.  And with today’s unanimous approval of the Report and Order, the FCC remains ready to address these challenges head-on," said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement.

RELATED: FCC chief unveils $200M program to boost telehealth services amid COVID-19 outbreak

As part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, Congress called on the FCC to increase transparency of the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program and to establish a clear set of rules and guidelines for evaluating applications.

"With today’s action, we have answered that call. The pandemic has affected communities both large and small throughout the country, from our urban centers to our most rural corners. Round 2 of this program will mirror this far-reaching impact to better ensure that each state and territory can be approved for funding," Rosenworcel said.

For the second round of funding, the agency has established a system for rating applications (PDF), factoring in the hardest-hit and lowest-income areas, tribal communities, healthcare provider shortage areas and unfunded Round 1 applicants. It also seeks to promote the equitable nationwide distribution of funding so that each state, territory and Washington will receive funding upon the program's inception.

To facilitate a more equitable funding window, the agency will set an application deadline so that all applications can be evaluated collectively, which enables all applicants to be on equal footing during the review, Rosenworcel said.

RELATED: FCC adds $198M for rural healthcare providers to boost telehealth services

"The program requirements we adopt today strike the right balance between ensuring a wide and equitable distribution of funding and promoting the widest possible participation of health care providers," said Commissioner Brendan Carr in a statement.

"The reliance on telehealth technology will continue to grow, even as the nation starts to see relief from this devastating pandemic. While we are in a much stronger position than we were when the COVID-19 Telehealth Program was initially adopted, we are not out of the woods yet. That is why we must continue to move swiftly on this second round of awards," Carr said.

The program requirements for the second round of funding will give significant weight to applications proposing to serve low-income communities, according to Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in a statement.

"The changes we made to the draft will better ensure that the highest poverty areas receive a high level of our attention," he said.