Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai supports increasing 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.
Testifying on Thursday before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Pai indicated that he favors expanding the funding cap—which has remained unchanged for more than 20 years—to meet the current and future needs of the program.
“While I can’t say exactly what the number should be, I can say that I do support increasing the program,” testified Pai. “This is one of the critical programs within the Universal Service Fund, and it’s often one that gets overlooked even though telemedicine is a game-changer, especially in some of these rural communities.”
The FCC chairman recounted how he recently visited Scottsville, Ky., where “telemedicine for the first time is allowing kids in Allen County schools to see an expert at Vanderbilt University’s Children’s Hospital,” adding that “there’s not a single pediatrician in the entire county.”
Pai said “that is significant and that is something that the Rural Health Care Program that we administer should try to support.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) commented that for the first time ever the demand for the Rural Health Care Program has exceeded the cap and funding to recipients has been reduced. “Telemedicine services are essential and this shortfall as a result of the cap is really compromising their ability to provide those services,” observed Van Hollen.
Pai noted that the FCC can increase the $400 million annual cap for the Rural Health Care Program, which the commission has the budget authority for. However, he said “one of the things we can’t do is make any tweaks to interstate licensing.” Pai added that “those barriers in terms of state by state licensing are holding telemedicine back.”
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