How Does the CARES Act Connect Us?

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, April 3, 2020

Weekly Digest

How Does the CARES Act Connect Us?

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of March 30 - April 3

Kevin Taglang

President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (or CARES Act) into law late last month. With a $2.2 trillion dollar price tag, the law has gotten a lot of attention for its direct payments to U.S. taxpayers and assistance to companies. But there's more -- lots more -- here that demonstrates the importance of communications -- and broadband -- during this national emergency. 

I. A New Reliance on Telehealth

The CARES Act includes several telehealth provisions, relaxing guidelines for Medicare coverage and allowing for connected health at federally-qualified health centers (FQHCs), rural health clinics (RHCs) and hospices.

The law allows for the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to temporarily waive or modify the application of existing law in the case of a telehealth service furnished in any emergency area during an emergency period. A provision enhances payment for telehealth services furnished via a telecommunications system by a federally qualified health center (FQHC) or rural health clinic (RHC) during an “emergency period.” Payment methods for FQHCs or RHCs that serve as distant sites shall be based on payment rates similar to the national average payment rates for comparable telehealth services. Those two types of facilities have long served as care providers for rural and underserved populations, and many have been trying to use telemedicine and mobile health platforms despite the lack of Medicare coverage.

The Health Resources and Services Administration at HHS receives $180 million to support rural critical access hospitals, rural tribal health, and telehealth programs.

The CARES Act also:

  • Allows high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) with a health savings account (HSA) to cover telehealth services before the members reach their deductibles;
  • Eliminates the requirement that nephrologists conduct some required periodic home visits for dialysis patients in person;
  • Allows qualified providers to use telehealth to fulfill hospice recertification requirements for face-to-face visits; and
  • Provides $27 billion for HHS’s Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund for Coronavirus measures, including telehealth access and infrastructure.

The new law provides $3.1 billion to the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration (VA), allowing it to:

  • Provide flexibility for the Veteran Directed Care program, including telephone enrollment and renewals;
  • Enhance health and housing initiatives for homeless veterans, including increased use of telehealth for programs with VA case managers, temporarily eliminating funding limits for programs providing direct support services to homeless veterans, and providing flexibility to veterans in these programs; and 
  • Enter into agreements with telecommunications companies to provide broadband for veterans in support of providing telemental health care. 

At the Department of the Interior, the Indian Health Service gets $1.032 billion, a portion of which can be spent on new investments for telehealth services and electronic health records improvement. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response gets $127 billion for medical response efforts, including workforce modernization and increased telehealth access and infrastructure to increase access to digital healthcare delivery.

The Federal Communications Commission receives $200 million for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program to ensure access to connected care services and devices in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and surge in demand for connected care services. The support provided through the COVID-19 Telehealth Program is meant to help eligible health care providers purchase telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services, whether for treatment of coronavirus or other health conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. This COVID-19 Telehealth Program is funded only through the CARES Act, and  will not rely on Universal Service Fund support.

Also on April 2, the FCC established the Connected Care Pilot Program within the Universal Service Fund (USF) that will make available up to $100 million over three years to examine how USF can help support the trend towards connected care services, particularly for low-income Americans and veterans. The Pilot Program will help defray eligible health care providers’ costs of providing connected care services. The FCC expects that the Pilot Program will provide meaningful data that will help the agency better understand how USF funds can support health care provider and patient use of connected care services, and how supporting health care provider and patient use of connected care services can improve health outcomes and reduce health care costs. 

II. Supporting Distance Education

Schools across the nation began shutting down early in March; many will not reopen until next school year. At the same time, they must continue to help address the basic needs of students and develop plans for providing online learning for all students, including students with disabilities, English language learners and homeless students. The CARES Act aims, in part, to help the transition to online learning. 

For elementary and secondary education, $13.5 billion is available for formula-grants to states, which will then distribute 90 percent of funds to local educational agencies to use for coronavirus-response activities including purchasing educational technology to support online learning for all students served by the local educational agency. 

College students facing closed campuses and the transition to distance education are dealing with increased costs and challenges meeting basic needs like housing and food. The CARES Act makes flexible funds available to help address these needs. $14.250 billion will be available for higher education emergency relief for institutions of higher education to defray expenses including technology costs associated with a transition to distance education, and grants to students for food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and child care.

III. Delivering Broadband and Essential Services to Rural Areas

Rural areas get targeted support through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA launched the ReConnect program in 2018; Congress initially allocated $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. In the CARES Act, $100 million is provided to the ReConnect program. 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.

The law also provides $25 million in additional funding for the USDA's Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant program which supports rural communities’ access to telecommunications-enabled information, audio, and video equipment, as well as related advanced technologies for students, teachers, and medical professionals. 

IV. Funding for Digital Inclusion

The CARES Act includes $50 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services to expand digital network access in areas of the country where such access is lacking, including the purchase of internet-enable devices and provisions for technical support services in response to the disruption of schooling and other community services during the COVID-19 emergency.

IMLS Director Crosby Kemper said, "The two things made clear by Congress is that our agency should use this investment to immediately, flexibly, and efficiently fund projects that will have the biggest impact in the crisis, and we should focus on digital inclusion and technical capacity building." He noted, "As Americans are sheltering in place, working from home, and isolating themselves from all but their closest family, the digital divide only deepens."

V. Don't Forget Public Broadcasting!

Finally, the CARES Act includes $75 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to make fiscal stabilization grants to public television and radio stations facing declines in non-Federal revenues. These funds will help maintain programming and preserve small and rural stations threatened by declines in non-Federal revenues.

"As school districts close across our country due to the coronavirus outbreak, public television stations are offering their broadcast and online services to help teachers continue educational instruction at home. Public media journalists in all 50 states are playing a vital role informing the local community about the latest coronavirus developments, delivering critical reporting and spotlighting local resources intended to help Americans navigate these uncertain times," said CPB President and CEO Patricia Harrison. “Further, in many states and local communities, public media stations’ digital and broadcast infrastructure provide the backbone for emergency alert, public safety, first responder and homeland security services. This stabilization funding will safeguard the nation’s ability to continue to deliver emergency alerts and essential safety information.”

VI. The Next Bill

Even as the wheels of the Federal government turn to make CARES Act funding available where it is needed most, Congress is already pivoting its attention to the next bill to address the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats will likely push for billions of dollars to close the online Homework Gap and help low-income households with connectivity. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) also appears ready to renew a push for an infrastructure plan that would wrap in $86 billion for broadband efforts. President Trump has indicated he'd like to see a $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. Republican Members of Congress, meanwhile, have called for regulatory relief to help telecommunications carriers build-out and upgrade networks during the pandemic. 

We'll be tracking progress on the possible legislation; you can follow along in Headlines.

Stay well, stay safe.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

April 9 -- High-Performance Broadband and Economic Success in the 2020s (MERIT Network)

April 23 -- April 2020 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting (FCC)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.