The Federal Communications Commission has voted in favor of a proposal by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to increase the annual cap from $400 million to $571 million for the Rural Health Care Program, which provides telecommunications and broadband services to rural communities supporting telemedicine.
Last week, Pai sent a draft order to his colleagues at the agency seeking an increase in the annual funding cap by $171 million for the Rural Health Care Program. In response, a majority of the FCC’s commissioners voted in favor of the proposal to take immediate action to address a funding shortfall and improve telemedicine in rural areas.
“Telemedicine is vital in many communities that may not otherwise have access to high-quality health care, and the Federal Communications Commission has an important role in promoting it,” said Pai in a written statement. “I want to thank Commissioners O’Rielly and Carr for their support as the FCC takes the critical step of updating its Rural Health Care Program. It will help rural health care providers deliver critical telemedicine services to Americans across the country.”
The FCC chairman also thanked members of Congress for their strong bipartisan support of his funding proposal. Last month, 31 senators sent a letter to Pai warning him that unless the spending cap was raised providers in rural areas would encounter severe rate increases for their broadband services, making it more difficult for them to “engage in life-saving telemedicine.”
Congress in 1996 mandated that the FCC use the Universal Service Fund to provide support for both telecommunications and advanced information services for eligible providers in rural communities to enable telemedicine, transmit health records, and conduct other telehealth activities.
However, the cap for the Rural Health Care Program—which was set in 1997—was never indexed for inflation. Under Pai’s order, the cap will be adjusted annually for inflation and will allow unused funds from prior years to be carried forward to future years.
“Too many Americans living in our country’s rural communities are at risk of falling behind when it comes to high-quality, affordable healthcare,” said FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr in a written statement. “It often is difficult to find specialists in many rural communities and even basic care can be out of reach, as we see rural hospitals closing by the dozen. The FCC’s Rural Health Care Program can help make a difference.”
Carr added that he recently visited a skilled nursing facility in Lennox, South Dakota—supported by the Rural Health Care Program—that is using broadband-enabled technology to improve patient outcomes and eliminate unnecessary costs. He noted that a connected workstation at the facility enables patients to “visit virtually with a doctor located in Sioux Falls or elsewhere” and that the “broadband connection has eliminated the need for the long and sometimes arduous ambulance ride into bigger cities and gives patients access to specialists that they might otherwise be unable to see.”
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