FCC Temporarily Lifts Cap on Rural Health Care Program

By now, it’s been well established that access to high-quality telehealth care is virtually impossible without access to high-quality broadband Internet. And it’s been equally well established that, while progress has been made when it comes to the expansion of U.S. broadband infrastructure, work remains to be done in terms of getting people connected. Indeed, studies have shown that more than 30 million Americans still lack access to high-speed broadband Internet, including as many as 39 percent of people residing in rural areas. With these statistics in mind, advocates have increasingly pushed for expanded broadband in recent months—and thanks to a December 14 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote, they are in part getting their wish. As Fierce Healthcare first reported, the FCC unanimously voted last week to waive the FY2017 funding cap for its Rural Health Care Program, which supports telehealth in rural communities. “For Americans living in rural and isolated areas, doctor shortages and hospital closures are endemic, and obtaining access to high-quality health care remains a constant challenge,” the FCC said in a press release following the vote. “Broadband connectivity has the potential to address such barriers to care by delivering telehealth services and access to cutting-edge health care treatments.”

Since 1997, annual funding for the Rural Health Care Program has been capped at $400 million, not adjusted for inflation; in the past two fiscal years, applications for funds have far exceeded that cap. Along with waiving this year’s cap, the FCC will be seeking comments on what an appropriate funding cap might be for future years. The agency’s press release also notes that commissioners are seeking comment from the public on “ways to more efficiently distribute RHC Program funds and combat waste, fraud, and abuse.” Potential strategies for this include the introduction of a “prioritization mechanism” in case demand once again outweighs available funding, and developing “a process for evaluating outlier funding requests.”

The Rural Health Care Program decision, however, was largely overshadowed by the net neutrality vote that the FCC took on the same day. Commissioners formally voted, 3-2, to overturn a 2015 decision that officially classified the Internet as a public utility and forbade Internet service providers (ISPs) from censoring content. As we reported last week, before the vote, a number of telehealth experts, ranging from representatives of advocacy groups to providers who utilize the technologies with their patients, expressed their concern about what the potential overturning of the rule would mean for telehealth. “Telehealth doesn’t work if you don’t have that connectivity,” Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP) Interim Executive Director Mei Wa Kwong told Fierce Healthcare. “It’s an essential element of telehealth. If you price people out, they aren’t going to be able to use it.”

Click here to read the Fierce Healthcare article on the FCC Rural Health Care Program decision, as well as telehealth advocates’ concerns over net neutrality repeal.

Click here to read the FCC statement on the Rural Health Care Program vote.

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