Nowhere is bridging the digital divide more critical than in the area of health care. Today, whether it's through remote patient monitoring or mobile health applications accessed via smartphones, tablets, or other devices, advances in broadband-enabled health technologies are allowing patients to receive care wherever they are located. These connected care services can lead to better health outcomes and significant cost savings for patients and health care providers alike. Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is committed to closing the digital divide and sees access to telehealth care servicess—especially for underserved and marginalized communities—as a top priority.
Connecting to Health Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The FCC has implemented a number of initiatives to help keep Americans connected to critical health services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- COVID-19 Telehealth Program: The FCC established a $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program to help health care providers provide connected care services to patients at their homes or mobile locations in response to the pandemic. The program provided immediate support to eligible health care providers responding to the pandemic by fully funding their telecommunications services, information services, and a wide array of devices necessary to provide critical connected care services. Since the beginning of the program, the agency approved 539 funding applications in 47 states plus Washington, D.C. and Guam for a total of $200 million in funding—the amount of money provided by Congress in the CARES Act. On January 6, 2021 the FCC issued a request for comment on how to administer Round 2 of the program, which received an additional $249.95 million in support as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. To learn more and to view a list of approved applicants, visit fcc.gov/covid19telehealth.
- Supporting Telehealth by Waiving Gift Rules: The FCC waived gift rules in the Rural Health Care programs to make it easier for broadband providers to support telehealth during the pandemic. The waiver will allow healthcare providers to accept improved capacity, Wi-Fi hotspots, networking gear, or other equipment or services to support doctors and patients during the coronavirus outbreak.
- Increasing Rural Health Care Funding: The FCC adopted an Order to fully fund all eligible Rural Health Care Program services for the current funding year with an additional $42.19 million. This action will help ensure that healthcare providers have the resources they need to promote telehealth solutions for patients during this outbreak. In addition, a June 30 Public Notice announced that up to $197.98 Million in unused funds from prior funding years will be available for Funding Year 2020.
- Grant Healthcare Waiver Requests: The FCC has granted waivers to GE Healthcare, to expedite medical equipment such as wearable patient monitors, diagnostic testing systems, and portable x-rays from new suppliers during the pandemic, and to MIT to permit certification and marketing of the WiTrack system for remote patient monitoring.
Support for Telehealth
Ensuring that rural health care providers have access to broadband and telephone service at rates comparable to those paid by urban providers is a core mission of the FCC. The agency is also looking for new ways to boost telehealth efforts and maintains a dedicated team focused exclusively on connectivity and health care.
- Rural Health Care Program: Boosted funding for the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program from $400 million in 2017 by 43% and implemented automatic budget adjustments and allowed funds unused from prior years to be carried forward; acted to fully fund all eligible Rural Health Care Program services for the funding year 2019 with an additional $42.19 million; for the 2020 funding year, announced the Commission would carry forward up to $197.98 million in unused funds to provide $802.7 million to meet growing demand for telehealth in rural America.
- Connected Care Pilot Program: The FCC's Connected Care Pilot Program will study how connected care could be a permanent part of the Universal Service Fund by making available up to $100 million of universal service support over three years to help defray eligible health care providers’ costs of providing telehealth services to patients at their homes or mobile locations, with an emphasis on providing those services to low-income Americans and veterans. On January 15, 2021 an initial set of 14 pilot projects with over 150 treatment sites in 11 states was announced.
- Connect2HealthFCC Task Force: The Connect2HealthFCC Task Force is exploring the intersection of broadband, advanced technology and health, engaging with a wide array of stakeholders, and further charting the broadband future of health care—serving as an umbrella for all FCC health-oriented activities to help enable a healthier America. Among its projects, the Task Force has led the Commission's work on Mapping Broadband Health in America, a first-of-its-kind platform allowing users to interactively visualize, overlay and analyze broadband and health data at the national, state, and county levels, and enabling detailed study of the intersection between connectivity and health.
- Wireless Medical Telemetry: Monitoring patients at a distance relies on wireless technology. The FCC, in its role of ensuring the best use of America’s wireless airwaves, ensures that these vital health services have access to the spectrum needed to avoid interference. This protects the operations of life-saving devices like those that measure patients' vital signs or transport the data via a radio link to another location within a health care facility, like a nurses' station equipped with a specialized radio receiver.
- Enforcement: The FCC proposed an $18.7 million fine for apparent violations of the FCC's competitive bidding rules for the Rural Health Care Program and for using forged, false, misleading, and unsubstantiated documents to improperly seek funding from the Universal Service Fund.
Engagement & Partnerships
The FCC is actively engaging with the broader health care community, including providers, innovators, researchers, patients and caregivers, to find ways to help connect more Americans to life-saving services.
- Remote Health Care: Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel has visited, both in-person and virtually, health facilities serving at-risk populations and children, including Whitman-Walker Health, Children's National Hospital, and the University of Virginia Center for Telehealth.
- Rural Telehealth Initiative: In August 2020, the FCC, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Department of Agriculture signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together on the Rural Telehealth Initiative, a joint effort to collaborate and share information to address health disparities, resolve service provider challenges, and promote broadband services and technology to rural areas in America. As part of this MOU, the agencies intend to establish an interagency Rural Telehealth Initiative Task Force comprised of representatives from each agency. This Task Force will regularly meet to consider future recommendations or guidelines for this effort and exchange agency expertise, scientific and technical information, data, and publications.
- Broadband and Cancer Collaboration for Appalachia – Led by its Connect2HealthFCC Task Force, the FCC is also working with the National Cancer Institute, University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, and other stakeholders to study how increased connectivity in Appalachia can help address the burden of symptom management for cancer patients in rural and underserved areas.
February 3, 2021 - News Release
Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel Highlights Telehealth for Pediatrics
February 2, 2021 - Report and Order
FCC Readies for the Next Round of the COVID-19 Telehealth Program
February 2, 2021 - News Release
Rosenworcel Meets with University of Virginia to Discuss Telehealth
January 29, 2021 - News Release
Rosenworcel Promotes Telehealth During Visit to Whitman-Walker Health