The $2 trillion CARES Act signed into law by President Trump on Friday aims to address the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic on a range of fronts and includes at least $300 million in funding for telecom programs. Specifically, the law includes $100 million for the USDA ReConnect program and $200 million for a one-time telehealth program to be administered by the FCC.

On a conference call with reporters today, FCC officials said the CARES Act-funded telehealth program is targeted toward promptly addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and would have different rules from the traditional Universal Service Fund rural telehealth program, including being open to urban as well as rural healthcare institutions.

In addition, the officials noted that the commission is considering allocating an additional $100 million not part of the CARES Act for a telehealth pilot program to be known as the Connected Care Pilot Program, and which would have broader goals beyond COVID-19.

CARES Act USDA ReConnect Funding
The USDA inaugurated the ReConnect program in 2018, initially allocating $600 million for the program, which covers some of the cost of deploying broadband to rural areas where broadband is not already available. In 2019, lawmakers allocated an additional $550 million in ReConnect funding and the USDA adjusted the program guidelines somewhat based on its experiences with the first funding round.

The funding allocated in 2018 has been allocated and the USDA is currently accepting applications for the second funding round.

USDA did not provide details about the rules for how the new $100 million included in the CARES Act would be awarded, nor did the agency detail when it would begin accepting applications. A USDA press release states that the funding will go toward ReConnect grants, which would be a departure from the first two rounds, in which some funding was awarded in the form of grants, some was awarded in the form of loans and some was awarded as a combination of the two funding types.

CARES Act FCC Funding
The $200 million that the CARES Act dedicates to the FCC telehealth program is aimed at funding telehealth services to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. As officials on today’s press call explained, however, the telehealth funding needn’t go specifically to treating COVID-19 patients but could indirectly help in treating those patients by eliminating or reducing the need for patients with other ailments to use resources needed by the COVID-19 patients.

The CARES Act directs the FCC to develop rules for awarding the $200 million to fund telehealth. The officials on today’s call said the commission proposes those rules in an order currently circulating within the FCC on which the FCC commissioners must vote.

The proposed rules would allow recipients to use funding for telecom and broadband connectivity as well as for devices necessary for providing telehealth services. Entities that would be eligible to receive funding include non-profit hospitals, educational institutions providing healthcare instruction, several types of healthcare centers and others. No entity would be able to receive more than $1 million. There would be no matching fund requirement and to expedite telehealth implementation, a competitive bidding process would not be required.

Preference would be given to applicants in areas hardest hit by COVID-19 and funding would be awarded on a rolling basis, with decisions made as applications are received.

FCC officials said they hoped some awardees might receive funding within a month, but also noted that timing would depend on several factors, including how soon the five FCC commissioners vote on the proposal, how soon the FCC Office of Management and Budget approves an application form and how soon the order could be published in the federal register.

Connected Care Pilot Program
The proposed Connected Care Pilot Program would be a three-year program and would be a new program within the Universal Service Fund. It would provide funding for 85% of the eligible costs of broadband connectivity, network equipment and information services to provide connected care to a range of target groups such as those with high-risk pregnancies, opioid addition, cancer, diabetes and other conditions that require treatment over time. Priority would be given to low-income and veteran patients.

Unlike with the CARES Act-funded program, competitive bidding would be required and awards would not be made on a rolling basis, officials explained.

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