AAFP Urges FCC to Focus on Rural Telehealth

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. The latest group to speak out: the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), which, in a recent letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), called for increased funding for the agency’s Rural Health Care Program, which supports telehealth in rural communities. “We believe the FCC’s RHC program has an important role to play to ensure disparities are not widened for those in rural areas, including disparities tied to lack of timely access to quality health care,” the letter, signed by the 129,000-member organization’s board chairman, states.

The AAFP letter, in making its case for increased program funding, emphasizes the role that telehealth can play in supporting primary care physicians who serve rural communities, amid a limited pool of such providers. “While efforts to meet physician shortages in rural areas have improved the situation, there continues to be a shortage of physicians for rural areas,” the letter reads. The organization also expresses support for the rollover of funding recipients’ leftover funds into subsequent fiscal years, noting that “technology projects often become delayed by issues beyond the control of the medical practice.” In addition, AAFP calls for an adjustment for inflation in the funding cap, and for the prioritization of Rural Health Care Program dollars “based on economic need of the population served by the physician or clinician.”

As we previously reported, the FCC voted unanimously this past December to waive the FY2017 funding cap for the Rural Health Care Program. Since 1997, its annual funding had been capped at $400 million, not adjusted for inflation; in the past two fiscal years, applications for funds have far exceeded that cap. “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. Along with waiving this year’s cap, the commissioners sought comments on what an appropriate funding cap might be for future years, as well as “ways to more efficiently distribute RHC Program funds and combat waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Click here to read the AAFP statement on their letter to the FCC.

Click here to read the AAFP letter to the FCC.

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