31 senators call on FCC to increase $400M cap for Rural Health Care Program

Rural providers are facing severe rate hikes for broadband services, which will make it harder for them to practice telemedicine, say lawmakers.

A bipartisan group of 31 senators is urging the Federal Communications Commission to increase the $400 million annual cap for the Rural Health Care Program, which provides funding for telecommunications and broadband services to rural communities to support telemedicine.

Lawmakers sent a letter on Monday to FCC Ajit Pai calling on the agency to expand the funding cap to meet the current and future needs of the program, which they say has been improving the quality of rural healthcare for more than 20 years.

However, the senators pointed out that in 2016—for the first time ever—the demand for the Rural Health Care Program exceeded the cap, and funding to recipients was reduced by 7.5 percent. In addition, they noted that RHC Program applicants will suffer a “devastating cutback” of 16 percent to 26 percent in funding year 2017 because of continued growth in demand.

“Unless the spending cap is raised appropriately to account for current needs and future growth, healthcare providers in rural areas will encounter severe rate increases for their broadband services, making it even harder for rural healthcare practitioners to engage in life-saving telemedicine,” states the senators’ letter to the FCC.

According to the senators, a recent survey conducted by the Journal of Rural Health found that 59 percent of non-metro healthcare clinics have less than a 10 megabit per second connection—that’s only 1 percent of the gigabit capacity recommended by the FCC’s National Broadband Plan.

“This shortage of broadband connectivity highlights the amount of work still to be done to support and connect rural healthcare providers to 21st century technologies,” wrote the senators.

Also See: Telehealth plays growing role for patient access to care in rural America

In November 2017, the FCC issued a new notice of proposed rulemaking and order seeking comment on how to strengthen the Rural Health Care Program and improve access to telehealth services.

“As you move toward a final decision in this proceeding, we urge you to sufficiently increase the current funding cap to account for the current demand and future growth of the program’s recipients,” stressed the senators.

The American Hospital Association contends that the Rural Health Care Program must be updated to keep pace with the growing connectivity needs of healthcare providers. In February, AHA sent a letter to the FCC urging it to implement several changes, including increasing the program’s $400 million annual cap.

“The program’s full potential is limited by a spending cap that is insufficient to meet the costs associated with delivering high-capacity broadband-enabled telehealth services,” according to AHA. “As the Commission evaluates the proper spending level for the RHC Program, it should strongly consider including remote patient monitoring as an eligible program expense.”

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