UPDATE: June 12, 2020: Top leadership in the House Energy and Commerce committee sent a letter Friday to the FCC requesting more transparency around providers that had requested but not yet received money in the COVID-19 Telehealth program, following reports of providers having trouble being approved for and accessing funds.
- The Federal Communications Commission has allocated almost $105 million in funding for 305 nonprofit and public health providers to build up their telehealth infrastructure in 42 states and Washington, D.C. in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency said Wednesday.
- It's the 10th round of funding approvals from the FCC for its COVID-19 Telehealth Program, set up by the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in March. CARES benchmarked $200 million for the effort, so FCC has allocated a little more than half the total amount to date.
- However, the agency faces criticism for not getting funding out the door and into providers' pockets quickly. Though the FCC released its first round of funding in mid-April, by May 20 the agency had sent only one provider out of the 89 approved at the time their allocated funds. FCC did not respond to multiple requests for an update on how many providers have received disbursements to date.
Providers of all shapes and sizes began bolstering their telehealth infrastructure in the early days of the pandemic as flatlining patient volume drove them to new paths to recoup lost revenue. Despite phased reopening occurring in states nationwide, analysts expect heightened telehealth use to continue as new pockets of the coronavirus bubble up across the U.S., which surpassed 2 million confirmed COVID-19 cases Wednesday.
But implementation and subscriptions costs for necessary hardware and software are steep enough to be a no-go for some, especially smaller primary care practices: some tens of thousands of dollars depending on the size of the provider, its EHR, the virtual care vendor and other factors.
The COVID-19 Telehealth Program was created to lessen the financial burden on providers so more patients could safely receive care in their homes amid the pandemic. FCC approved an additional 67 funding applications on Wednesday, making up more than $20 million to public and nonprofit hospitals, doctor's offices and behavioral and mental health providers.
Approved providers in the most recent round run the gamut from Leyden Family Health Service and Mental Health Center in Franklin Park, Illinois, which was allocated $1,468 for phones, wireless data plans and videoconferencing software, to NYC Health + Hospitals and Northwestern Memorial HealthCare in Chicago, which were allocated $1 million each for more advanced programs.
But as of May, only one approved provider had actually received its earmarked funds, suggesting a significant backlog. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai testified in a briefing to a House of Representatives subcommittee the delay was due to administrative processes. To get their money, providers have to submit additional documentation, including an invoice, for the costs of eligible services, devices and other expenses.
It's meant to be a check against fraud, waste and abuse, but could add another layer of administrative burden on providers strapped for time amid the pandemic. FCC said at the time it expects more invoices to be approved as the program matures, grants more approvals and receives more invoices.
On Friday, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., and Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Chairman Mike Doyle, D-Penn., requested FCC release more information about where dollars are flowing in the program.
"We have heard reports that many health care providers are facing issues obtaining funds, particularly those serving tribal lands," Pallone and Doyle wrote in their letter to Chairman Pai. "Similarly, health care providers report they have been unable to receive funding for some important telehealth equipment that we believe should be covered under the law."
The two congressmen are requesting the FCC update its website weekly with a list of all received applications, noting which have been approved, when funds were sent out to those providers and a brief explanation why specific telehealth services or devices were not approved, by June 19.
The agency will continue to accept and review applications until the $200 million in funding is exhausted or the pandemic ends. Private and for-profit providers aren't eligible for the program.