Bringing to a close the process initiated with the adoption of the Secure and Trusted Communications Act of 2019, the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau released its list of communications equipment and services that it has deemed to pose an unacceptable risk to U.S. national security. U.S.-based service providers are prohibited from receiving federal subsidies for purchasing the listed communications equipment or services (Covered List), and service providers will be given an opportunity to receive federal funds to subsidize the removal and replacement of the communications equipment and services included on the Covered List.
The Continuing Appropriations Act, 2021 and Other Extensions Act, a $2.3 trillion COVID-19 relief and omnibus government funding package, contains several noteworthy communications-related measures, including $7 billion in funding for broadband initiatives and expanded television and radio station eligibility for the Paycheck Protection Program administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA).
$7 Billion in Broadband Funding
The legislation’s broadband provisions target funding to both new and existing programs, responding to immediate broadband access and affordability challenges intensified by the pandemic, while also addressing longer-term broadband deployment and network security issues. Specifically, the legislation will provide additional funding for telehealth, create an emergency broadband subsidy program for eligible low-income households, fund increased broadband deployment on Tribal lands and in unserved areas, and support the removal and replacement of communications network equipment and services that pose risks to national security. An overview of these provisions is included below.
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On April 2, 2020, the FCC established the COVID-19 Telehealth Program (Program), which will guide the disbursement of $200 million to health care providers for connected care services to their patients. We published our summary of the Program on April 3, 2020, and followed up with a discussion of the FCC’s application procedures on April 9, 2020, and a review of the first wave of proposals granted on April 16, 2020.
With the fourth tranche of proposals approved on April 29, 2020, the FCC has now granted 30 funding proposals in 16 states. The FCC has pledged to review and grant eligible proposals on a rolling basis until either the FCC runs out of funds or the national pandemic ends.
As discussed in our prior alerts, the CARES Act of 2020 provided $200 million for the FCC to distribute to eligible parties with proposals to provide connected care services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds could be used for (i) telecommunications services and broadband connectivity services, (ii) data and information services, and (iii) internet-connected devices and equipment.
While the FCC has not released for public review most of the approved proposals, based on the public notices that have been released, it is clear that the FCC is willing to provide funding for proposals to implement connected care services and devices. Most of the approved proposals requested funding for a combination of:
- Remote patient monitoring;
- Portable equipment for screening at remote centers and nursing homes;
- Video services including patient visits; and
- Connected devices (tablets) for staff and high-risk patients.
On May 1, 2020, the FCC announced that, as of May 3, 2020, all applicants must submit their applications through the online portal.
Recently, there has been a push by groups to expand the pool of eligible entities. The American Hospital Association requested that the FCC reconsider its decision to only provide funding for nonprofit applicants. Other organizations like HCA Healthcare and the American Dental Association supported the expansion of eligible entities, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all health care providers (including dentists) and that the CARES Act did not require the nonprofit limitation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also supported the expansion of funding opportunities, noting that 20 percent of the nation’s hospitals are prevented from filing proposals for COVID-19 funds.
It is unclear whether the FCC will adjust its eligibility standards to include for-profit hospitals and medical practices, especially in light of the availability of funds that have yet to be allocated. We will continue to monitor the program’s progress and report any changes in the FCC’s rules.
On March 31, 2020, the FCC adopted a Report and Order to implement the COVID-19 Telehealth Program. The Program was established in the CARES Act, and the FCC was appropriated $200 million to provide to eligible medical facilities to provide telehealth services to their patients.
A more detailed discussion of the FCC’s Report and Order creating the Program, and a discussion of the procedures to apply for funding, can be found here and here. The Program’s intended purpose is to provide emergency funding for expenses arising from the COVID-19 pandemic that fall outside of the normal procurement process. Under the new program, non-profit hospitals, teaching hospitals, rural health clinics and skilled nursing facilities can apply for funds from the FCC to be used for voice and internet service, remote patient monitoring platforms, and Internet-connected devices and equipment.
The window for submitting applications opened on Monday, April 13th, and the FCC announced today that the first wave of applications had been granted. Below is a summary of each approved funding proposal:
- Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, was awarded $727,747 to implement telehealth video visits, virtual check-ins, remote patient monitoring, and e-visits to patient’s hospital rooms, which it said would enable it to continue to provide high quality patient care, keep patients safe in their homes, and reduce the use of personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Hudson River HealthCare, Inc., in Peekskill, New York, was awarded $753,367 for telehealth services to expand its COVID-19 testing and treatment programs serving a large volume of low-income, uninsured, and/or underinsured patients throughout southeastern New York State, encompassing the Hudson Valley, New York City, and Long Island.
- Mount Sinai Health System, in New York City, was awarded $312,500 to provide telehealth devices and services to geriatric and palliative patients who are at high risk for COVID-19 throughout New York City’s five boroughs.
- Neighborhood Health Care, Inc., in Cleveland, Ohio, was awarded $244,282 to provide telemedicine, connected devices, and remote patient monitoring to patients and families impacted by COVID-19 in Cleveland’s West Side neighborhoods, targeting low-income patients with chronic conditions.
- Ochsner Clinic Foundation, in New Orleans, Louisiana, was awarded $1,000,000 for telehealth services and devices to serve high-risk patients and vulnerable populations in Louisiana and Mississippi, to treat COVID-19 patients, and to slow the spread of the virus to others.
- UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh was awarded $192,500 to provide telehealth services to children who have received organ transplants and are thus immune-compromised and at high risk for COVID-19.
The FCC will continue to process applications until the earlier of (i) granting proposals for the full $200 million budgeted; or (ii) the end of the national emergency.
Even though the FCC stated that it would likely not grant proposals for more than $1 million, considering the rapid processing and approval of the first seven applications, interested parties will want to move quickly to submit their applications.