FCC Seeks Comments on Rural Health Care Program Funding

For advocates of increased access to rural broadband coverage, 2018 is off to a promising start, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officially seeking public comments on funding for the Rural Health Care Program. Following their December 14 vote to temporarily lift its annual cap, the agency is looking for public and industry feedback on the program, which supports telehealth in rural communities, it announced in a January 3 Federal Register notice. “As technology and telemedicine assume an increasingly critical role in health care delivery, a well-designed RHC Program is more vital than ever,” the notice reads. “Trends suggest that rural communities across the country are falling behind when it comes to the availability of high-quality health care.”

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 is seeking comments on what an appropriate funding cap might be for future years, with the ultimate goal of taking “measured steps to ensure that rural health care providers get the support they need while guarding against waste, fraud, and abuse.” More specifically, commissioners are seeking comment from the public on ways in which they might more efficiently distribute program funds, while tackling waste, fraud, and abuse among funding recipients. Potential strategies for this include the introduction of a prioritization mechanism in case demand once again outweighs available funding, and developing a process by which “to identify outlier funding requests.” Other areas in which they are seeking comment include year-to-year funding rollover, targeting of support, and the measuring of “urban and rural rates,” among other matters. Users have until February 2 to submit their feedback.

As we’ve previously reported, advocates have increasingly focused in recent months on rural broadband, pointing to studies showing 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. Last 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. Last 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.”

Click here to read the Federal Register notice calling for comments on Rural Health Care Program funding, or to submit comments.

Click here to read a Fierce Healthcare article on the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program.

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