FCC boosts rural healthcare funding by $198M, with eye toward telehealth expansion
The Federal Communications Commission announced this week that it would be allocating more money to be disbursed to rural providers and help them establish the broadband connectivity necessary to implement telehealth and virtual care during the coronavirus crisis.
WHY IT MATTERS
The FCC's Rural Health Care Program has seen intense interest in recent years from small providers nationwide seeking high-speed broadband to enable telehealth and remote patient-monitoring – so much so that the demand has outpaced the funding cap.
In 2018, the FCC developed new rules to help accommodate that increase in demand:
- Increasing the annual program funding cap for the first time in the Rural Health Care Program's history
- Providing for that cap to be adjusted annually for inflation
- Establishing a process to carry forward unused funds from past funding years for use in future funding years.
The Rural Health Care Program funding cap for funding year 2020 is $604.76 million.
This week, the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the rural program, was instructed this week by the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau to carry forward as much as $197.98 million in unused money from prior funding years "to the extent necessary to satisfy funding year 2020 demand for the Program," according to the agency.
With the announcement, the total amount available for eligible healthcare providers during funding year 2020 will be $802.74 million, the most in its history.
THE LARGER TREND
The goal of the Rural Health Care Program, according to the FCC, is to boost healthcare quality for rural communities by ensuring access to telecommunications and broadband services.
The program currently comprises two initiatives: the Healthcare Connect Fund Program (launched in 2012), which provides support for high-capacity broadband connectivity and encourages the formation of state and regional broadband healthcare provider networks, and the Telecommunications Program (1997), which subsidizes the difference between urban and rural rates for telecommunications services.
Providers eligible for the program include: (1) post-secondary educational institutions offering healthcare instruction, teaching hospitals and medical schools; (2) community health centers or health centers providing healthcare to migrants; (3) local health departments or agencies; (4) community mental health centers; (5) not-for-profit hospitals; (6) rural health clinics; and (7) skilled nursing facilities. In addition, eligible providers must be non-profit or public.
ON THE RECORD
"In 2018, the FCC took swift action to ensure that the Rural Health Care Program better reflected the needs of and advances in connected care. Looking to the future, we gave providers more certainty by adjusting the cap annually for inflation and allowing unused funds from previous years to be carried forward," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai this week in announcing the expansion of funding opportunities.
"And now, more than ever, our foresight is fortuitous, as telehealth is proving to be critical in our fight against COVID-19. Today's announcement speaks to the FCC's commitment to ensuring that rural healthcare providers can continue to serve their communities during this difficult time and well into the future."