Posted in Policy

Senators urge FCC to raise rural health program spending cap

Chris Nerney
Chris Nerney, Contributing Writer |
Senators urge FCC to raise rural health program spending cap

Telehealth services are expanding in response to consumer demand for more convenient ways to obtain healthcare.
But meeting the growing demand for virtual health solutions requires reliable digital network infrastructures. Unfortunately, in the regions where telemedicine is most needed – remote and rural parts of the country – telecommunications and broadband services can be inconsistent and underfunded.
That’s why a bipartisan group of 31 senators is asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase available funding for the Rural Health Care Program (RHC), which provides money to eligible healthcare providers for telecommunications and broadband services.  
Funding for the Rural Health Care Program is capped at $400 million annually, but the senators want that spending limit raised because of increased demand.
“In 2016, for the first time ever, the demand for RHC funding exceeded the cap and funding to recipients was reduced by 7.5 percent,” the senators wrote Monday in a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “Further, it was recently announced that RHC applicants will suffer a devastating cutback in funding of 16 percent to 26 percent in funding year 2017” as demand grows.
Citing a recent survey by the Journal of Rural Health, the letter notes that 59 percent of health clinics located outside metropolitan areas have connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second, or 1 percent of the gigabit capacity recommended by the National Broadband Plan.
“Unless the spending cap is raised appropriately to account for current needs and future growth, healthcare providers in rural areas will encounter severe rate increases for their broadband services, making it even harder for rural healthcare practitioners to engage in life-saving telemedicine,” the senators wrote.