FCC needs to step up help for rural healthcare providers, GAO says

By Diana Manos
10:52 AM

A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is falling short on managing the telecommunication needs of rural healthcare providers.

For starters, GAO officials said, FCC needs to survey the needs of rural healthcare providers to be able to address them under the Rural Healthcare Program.

According to GAO, FCC has been successful in disbursing more than 86 percent of all committed funds, however FCC has disbursed only $327 million in total over the 12 years of the program's operation – less than any single year's $400 million funding cap.

In addition, GAO reported that FCC has frequently stated that the program is underutilized and has made a number of changes to the program, including the creation of the pilot program.

Currently, FCC is proposing to replace portions of the program with a new broadband services initiative. However, without a needs assessment, FCC cannot determine how well the current program is targeting those needs – and whether the program is, in fact, underutilized – or ensure that a new program will target needs any better, the GAO report said.

FCC's poor planning and communication during the design and implementation of the pilot program caused delays and difficulties for pilot program participants, the GAO found. FCC did not consult with the program's administrator, other federal agencies, or relevant stakeholders prior to announcing the program, nor did it request public comment on its design.

In addition, FCC called for applications to participate in the pilot program before it fully established pilot program requirements. FCC  added more program requirements after the pilot program began, and survey respondents indicated that program guidance was not provided in an effective manner, according to GAO.

Despite these difficulties, most participants were positive about the assistance provided by program officials and reported that the benefits they anticipate receiving from the pilot program outweigh the costs of participating, GAO officials found. However, the entire program has been delayed and projects have struggled to meet requirements that were not clearly defined at the beginning of the program.

The full GAO report can be found here.

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