The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) laid the groundwork for a new programme to boost telehealth services across the country, after receiving $200 million in funding as part of a Covid-19 (coronavirus) relief package passed by Congress.

Under a proposal by FCC chairman Ajit Pai, funding would be distributed through a new Covid-19 Telehealth Programme to help eligible healthcare providers purchase fixed or wireless broadband connectivity and devices necessary for remote services.

In addition to treating Covid-19 patients directly, the programme is intended to help free-up hospital space and reduce potential exposure to the virus by treating patients with other ailments remotely.

Pai cast the programme as a “critical tool” for healthcare providers attempting to address the pandemic, but it is unclear how quickly funding might be distributed.

Senior FCC officials told journalists the exact timeline will depend on how long it takes the five-member FCC to vote on Pai’s plan, and how long it takes to receive and evaluate applications. The aim, they said, is to get money out the door within a matter of weeks.

Seven categories of healthcare providers would be eligible to apply for funding under the plan: teaching hospitals; community health centres; local health departments; community mental health centres; non-profit hospitals; rural clinics; and skilled nursing facilities.

Applications would be considered on a rolling basis, with preference given to services offered in areas hardest-hit by the virus and those serving high-risk patients.

The officials did not specify a limit on the amount of funding applicants could receive, but said they do not expect to award more than $1 million to any single applicant. Funding would remain available until the full $200 million is expended or the pandemic ended.

Money for the programme was allocated to the FCC as part of a larger $2 trillion stimulus package known as the CARES Act, which was signed into law on 27 March.

The proposed Covid-19 Telehealth Programme is distinct from the FCC’s Connected Care Pilot Programme, which aims to distribute some $100 million over three years to help fund telehealth services.