FCC outlines $200 million COVID-19 telehealth plan

And says it won't kick users off of its Lifeline cell phone subsidy program.

Today, the FCC announced a few additional measures to help the US during the coronavirus pandemic. Chairman Ajit Pai shared plans for a $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program, which would equip healthcare providers with the broadband connectivity and devices they need to provide telehealth services. The FCC also eased off its ongoing crackdown on cell phone subsidy abuse, saying that it won't de-enroll participants until at least May 29th.

The COVID-19 Telehealth Program would use funds allocated for the FCC in the CARES Act. If approved, it would provide select applicants with full funding for eligible telehealth services and devices. Pai also presented plans for a longer-term Connected Care Pilot Program, which would make $100 million available over three years to help health care providers implement telehealth services, with an emphasis on serving low-income Americans and veterans.

The FCC also said that, during the pandemic, it won't kick users out of its Lifeline program, which provides monthly discounts on broadband and voice services to low-income customers. Lifeline providers are normally required to de-enroll subscribers who they believe are no longer eligible, but the FCC says it will suspend that requirement until at least May 29th.

The Pai-era FCC is notorious for cracking down on alleged Lifeline abuse. In November, a Center for Public Integrity investigation found that the FCC's aggressive stance may be hurting low-income households more than it helps. Since 2017, enrollment has dropped by 2.3 million people. In the District of Columbia, 49 percent of Lifeline users lost their subsidies between March 2018 and June 2019, and Mississippi, Wyoming and Puerto Rico saw similarly drastic drops.

"Our priority right now is keeping Americans connected to broadband and phone service when they need it most. These proactive measures will go a long way in minimizing the risk that a low-income consumer might lose service during the COVID-19 crisis," Pai said in a press release.

US wireless carriers have already pledged to suspend cancellations during the COVID-19 outbreak, and AT&T, Comcast, Sprint and T-Mobile have taken additional steps to keep subscribers connected.

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