FCC takes steps to reform Rural Health Care Program

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The Federal Communications Commission wants to ensure that funding for rural broadband services supporting telehealth technologies is being spent efficiently to benefit patients in underserved parts of the country.

Towards that end, the FCC on Thursday issued a “report and order” to promote transparency, accountability and predictability in the Rural Health Care Program, which supports telemedicine services to help rural communities access healthcare.

“Today’s action takes a number of steps to reform the distribution of RHC funding, in particular by revising the rules governing the Telecom Program to simplify calculation of the urban rate—the amount healthcare providers pay—and the rural rate—the amount that service providers receive,” according to the FCC’s announcement.

The RHC Program provides reduced rates to rural healthcare providers for telecommunications services and Internet access charges.

Last year, the FCC raised the annual cap on the RHC Program’s spending from $400 million to $571 million—an increase of more than 40 percent—for the first time in the agency’s history.

“This was a necessary change, but not a sufficient one to guarantee the program’s long-term health,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a written statement. “We also need to do more to root out waste, fraud and abuse in the program, for every dollar misspent is a dollar not devoted to telemedicine and the patients who need it.”

Also See: FCC commissioners boost Rural Health Care Program cap to $571M

Reforms to the RHC Program laid out in the order include:

· Targeting funding to rural areas in the most need of healthcare services so as to ensure that—when demand exceeds available funding—eligible rural healthcare providers continue to benefit from RHC Program funding by prioritizing support based on rurality and whether the area is medically underserved.

· Improving competitive bidding in the program to make it a more productive mechanism for healthcare providers to identify and select cost-effective service offerings available to them in rural areas.

· Developing a series of program-wide rules and procedures to simplify the application process for participants that provide more clarity regarding programmatic procedures.

According to Pai, Thursday’s FCC order will “replace guesswork with certainty for rural healthcare providers” who “will receive funding decisions more quickly so that they can focus on delivering cutting-edge healthcare to their patients.”

At the same time, he acknowledged that some service providers are unhappy about some of the actions taken in the FCC order. “These reforms will also reduce waste by ending communications service providers’ ability to manipulate the calculation of rates for their own benefit,” Pai added. “But the purpose of this program isn’t to pad their bottom line—it’s to make it easier and cheaper for healthcare providers to treat their patients.”

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