Posted in Policy

FCC head calls for increase in rural telemedicine program's annual budget

Chris Nerney
Chris Nerney, Contributing Writer |
FCC head calls for increase in rural telemedicine program's annual budget

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai is calling for a more than 40 percent increase in the annual budget for a healthcare program that enables rural providers to continue offering telemedicine services.
Pai on Wednesday issued a draft order to his colleagues urging a $171 million increase in funding for the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program to $571 million. The program’s annual fund has been capped at $400 million for more than 20 years. If approved, the new cap would represent a 42.8 percent increase in funding.
“The cap was set in 1997 and was never indexed for inflation,” the FCC said in a press release. “Recently, demand for funding under the program has outpaced the budget, creating uncertainty for patients, health care providers, and communications companies alike.”
The federal agency said the order “would apply the increased cap to the current funding year to immediately address a critical funding crisis and enable rural health care providers to continue offering telemedicine services.”
Further, the order also would adjust the cap annually for inflation and allow unused funds from prior years to be carried forward to future years to give providers long-term certainty about universal service funding, the FCC said.
The proposal has the backing of the American Hospital Association, which in April this year called for permanently adjusting the funding cap to prevent future cuts. 
“This is an important step to allow these providers to continue offering critical telemedicine services in their rural communities,” Pai said in a statement. “Healthcare has become increasingly reliant on connectivity over the past two decades, and this proposal reflects the need to keep pace with this evolution. I hope my colleagues will support my plan without delay.”
Pai’s draft order comes after a bipartisan group of 31 senators urged him in May to raise the $400 million annual cap. This followed a February letter to the FCC from the American Hospital Association that called for increasing the spending cap.