- The Federal Communications Commission has only sent one provider funds to build out its telehealth infrastructure, despite approving more than $33 million in congressional funds so far, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a Tuesday briefing to a House of Representatives subcommittee.
- To receive disbursements from FCC, approved providers have to submit an invoice and supporting documentation for the costs of eligible services and devices. It's meant to be a check against waste and fraud but could increase administrative burden on providers, making it more difficult for them to get funds they were promised.
- To date, FCC has only received one certified invoice from a provider in the program, Pai said. An agency spokesperson told Healthcare Dive: "We expect the number of invoices to increase steadily as more funding continues to be approved."
The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed by Congress in March benchmarked $200 million for providers to build out their telehealth infrastructure, IT network and hardware.
Since releasing the first round of funding mid-April, FCC's COVID-19 Telehealth Program has already approved funding for 89 providers in 30 states across six rounds of application approvals, allocating more than $33 million, Pai told the House Communications and Technology subcommittee on Tuesday.
FCC approved the sixth and most recent round of funding May 13, and expects to announce more approvals in the next few days.
"We're still quickly receiving and processing applications, and I can say this is a top priority," Pai said.
However, FCC is dealing with a significant backlog of funding if only one provider has received disbursement. Though FCC declined to provide specifics on the invoice, approved funding sizes so far run the gamut from just $5,886 to the Bethesda Community Clinic in Georgia to $1 million each for nonprofit academic giants Mayo Clinic and Oschner Health System.
Behemoth health systems and independent family practices alike have been funneling resources into rounding out their virtual care offerings to recoup much-needed revenue amid flattening visit volume.
The implementation costs of necessary hardware and software can be steep, especially for smaller practices: some tens of thousands of dollars depending on the vendor, the size of the practice, its EHR and other factors. That's why federal funding is so important, providers say — and why it's problematic FCC is issuing approvals but not receiving more invoices.
"There are major problems in getting funding out the door," Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said in the meeting, noting the importance of quickly reimbursing providers for their telehealth efforts.
However, FCC said it expects more dollars to flow as soon as the program matures, grants more approvals and receives more invoices. And, the agency forecasts the $200 million pot may not be enough as need for telehealth continues over the year, though it's "too early to say with certainty," Pai said.
The nation's telecommunications infrastructure has been under intense stress amid the pandemic as millions of Americans work remotely, take classes online and consult with their doctors via telehealth. Pai, who became FCC chairman in January 2017, testified the U.S.' networks are handling the surge in demand relatively well due to significant investments in broadband infrastructure over the past few years.
Private and public payers have taken steps to expand virtual care access and affordability amid skyrocketing demand for the service as patients shelter in place. But there's more to be done to lower barriers, Pai said, arguing states should consider removing or relaxing interstate medical licensure obligations, along with outdated reimbursement formulas that pay out lower rates for virtual visits.