The Federal Communications Commission is seeking public comment on the agency’s proposal 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 networks.

In a new notice of proposed rulemaking and order, the FCC notes that “for the second year in a row, demand is likely to exceed available RHC Program support, leaving participating healthcare providers with unanticipated cuts in funding.”

According to the agency, its order would “grant relief to rural healthcare providers facing potential cuts in Funding Year 2017” and “enable service providers to voluntarily reduce their rates for qualifying FY 2017 requests while keeping constant the support amount provided by the Universal Service Fund.”

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.

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

However, 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 May, AHA sent a letter to the FCC urging it to implement several changes including increasing the program’s $400 million annual cap.

“Funding for broadband-enabled healthcare is needed today more than ever, and the $400 million cap established 20 years ago is no longer sufficient to meet burgeoning demand,” wrote Ashley Thompson, AHA’s senior vice president of public policy analysis and development. “The inclusion of a new class of provider—skilled nursing facilities—beginning in 2017 will place additional demands on funding and should be accompanied by an increase in the cap to accommodate them. Furthermore, since the release of the National Broadband Plan in 2010, the Commission has increased the cap or budget for every Universal Service Fund program but the RHC program.”

Thompson added that “given the extremely tight budgets of rural health providers, even small reductions in support can disincentivize program participation,” and as a result, “it is time to revisit and reset this cap to provide support for all qualifying applicants and ensure that all Americans can benefit from a broadband-connected health care system, regardless of where they live.”

According to the FCC, it will consider the proposed rulemaking and order at the agency’s December 14 public meeting.

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