FCC to Increase Rural Health Care Program Funding? Draft Proposal

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 it looks like they might get their wish. As Healthcare IT News and others first reported, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indicated that it is looking into increasing funding for its Rural Health Care Program, which supports telehealth in rural communities. “As technology and telemedicine assume an increasingly critical role in healthcare delivery a well-designed Rural Health Care Program is more vital than ever,” the agency said in a notice of proposed rulemaking issued in late November. “Trends suggest that rural communities across the country are falling behind when it comes to the availability of high-quality health care.”

According to the agency’s notice, which points to the high closure rate of rural hospitals as well as provider shortages, the cap on the Rural Health Care Program would be lifted for one year. Since 1997, annual funding for the 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. Consequently, the FCC will also seek public comment on whether, and by how much, the cap should be permanently raised. The notice of proposed rulemaking also emphasizes that “waste, fraud, and abuse” in the program may have adversely impacted it in the past; thus, they will also look for feedback on ways to bring increased fairness to the funding process. The agency will discuss these and other program changes discussed in the notice during a December 14 public meeting.

As we’ve reported, advocates in recent months have increasingly focused on the importance of broadband. Earlier this year, the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA), the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), and other organizations urged FCC to prioritize the expansion of broadband access as a way of addressing health care disparities. AMIA encouraged the agency in a letter to consider broadband access “a social determinant of health,” given its importance to telehealth and other mobile health technologies, as they craft broadband policy. Over the summer, Microsoft advocated for a $10 billion federal-corporate partnership to better connect rural consumers to broadband services. And in November, the School, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, which included representatives of state and regional telehealth networks, tribal organizations, and advocacy groups such as the ATA, weighed in, writing to leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to encourage an increased focus on rural broadband as a way of improving health outcomes. “Rural America is facing an enormous challenge when it comes to health care,” the Coalition letter stated. “Over 80 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, and there is a severe shortage of doctors in rural areas, both of which raise the cost of providing medical care in rural communities.” In particular, they urged Congress to work with the FCC to raise the Rural Health Care Program funding cap.

Click here to read the Healthcare IT News article on the FCC Rural Health Care Program.

Click here to read the FCC notice of proposed rulemaking.

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