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FCC Votes to Increase Broadband Funding for Telehealth Expansion

The FCC, following a request from Chairman Ajit Pai, voted unanimously this week to increase a rural healthcare fund designed in part to help providers improve and expand broadband capabilities to enhance telehealth and telemedicine services.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Healthcare providers in rural parts of the country will soon have more flexibility to use telemedicine, thanks to an increase in funding for broadband expansion projects.

The Federal Communications Commission this week unanimously approved a long-debated increase in the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Healthcare Program, adding $171 million to this calendar year’s account.

The money, on top of $400 million appropriated annually and already used up this year, will be used to help rural healthcare providers improve and expand their online connectivity. This will allow them to launch and scale up telemedicine and telehealth programs that rely on broadband to expand access to patients and enable practitioners to collaborate and consult with specialists.

“Dependable broadband is a must so medical information like imaging, X-rays and more can be shared by providers,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of a large group in Congress to appeal to the FCC to boost funding, said in news reports following Monday’s FCC vote.

“The path to prosperity and quality healthcare in rural Oregon demands reliable rural broadband,” he said at a June 1 roundtable at St. Charles Hospital in Bend, as reported in his blog. “You can’t just have a healthcare system that picks and chooses affluent folks in urban areas and forgets about rural communities.”

The $400 million cap on the Rural Healthcare Program was established in 1997, when the program was created, and had never been increased to account for inflation – primarily because that funding limit hadn’t been reached. But that changed two years ago when requests from health systems seeking support surpassed the money set aside.

Since then, health system executives, healthcare organizations and lawmakers have lobbied for an increase in the cap.

“Telehealth technologies can enhance patient-physician collaborations, increase access to care, improve health outcomes by enabling timely care interventions, and decrease costs when utilized as a component of, and coordinated with, longitudinal care,” American Academy of Family Physicians Board Chairman John Meigs, Jr., MD, wrote in a letter to FCC Secretary Marlene H. Dortch. “Responsible care coordination is necessary to ensure patient safety and continuity of care for the immediate condition being treated, and it is necessary for effective longitudinal care.”

Last December, the FCC proposed to carry forward unused funds from past years to cover additional FY 2017 expenditures on a one-time-only basis and asked for suggestions on developing a formula to adjust the cap each year.

“In this proposed rule, the FCC asks for comments regarding whether the Commission should adjust the $400 million cap annually,” the AAFP letter stated. “The FCC provides an example, noting if indeed the Commission had adjusted the $400 million cap annually for inflation each year from 1997 forward, and had based adjustment for inflation ‘on the GDP–CPI (which the E-rate Program uses to adjust its cap),’ then the Rural Health Care (RHC) program cap would have been approximately $571 million for FY 2017. The AAFP urges the FCC to adjust for inflation and to also consider the price fluctuation in technology.”

Earlier this month, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he supported that idea, and asked the committee to boost this year’s fund by 43 percent to match inflation and cover existing requests. He also asked that the fund be adjusted each year for inflation.

“As the son of two doctors in rural Kansas, and having visited telemedicine projects from Alaska to Florida, I understand the critical role that broadband plays in giving patients in rural areas high-quality health care services,” he said. “I’m pleased to announce my plan to increase funding for the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program by $171 million.”

“This money will help health care providers get the connectivity they need to better serve patients throughout rural America,” Pai added. “Demand for funding has been outpacing the program’s funding cap, so I also believe that the increased cap should apply to the current funding year so that rural health care providers can be fully reimbursed.”

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