GAO: USDA broadband loan program needs a performance review

The U.S. Department of Agriculture should evaluate the effectiveness of its rural broadband loan program, as many performance goals don't align with the program's intent, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

To that end, GAO believes many of the loans approved were no longer active due to cancellation prior to a full payout or provider default for failure to abide by the terms of the loan. For the report, the agency examined Rural Utilities Service (RUS) loans dispersed by USDA between 2003 and 2011, as well as corresponding statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Telemedicine has been a big part of the USDA's efforts, particularly in the form of grants. For instance, in February, USDA announced that it would award more than $4 million in grants across 11 states to boost telemedicine in rural areas. In eight states, combination grants worth more than $2.6 million will go toward improvements for both telemedicine and distance learning efforts.

Two years earlier, about $8.3 million in telemedicine grants were distributed by USDA.

The loans, according to the report, have helped some rural communities improve their care delivery to patients. One provider in South Dakota who spoke to GAO, for instance, said the loans enabled use of Veterans Affairs services. Another provider in Kansas said they helped rural hospitals access information and personnel at more advanced facilities.

Still, according to GAO, loans in many areas might not even be necessary. As of June 2013, areas with RUS loans generally had the same number of broadband providers as areas that did not receive loans. The goal of the program, however, is to increase the reach of broadband in areas with limited access, GAO pointed out.

"As our past work has shown, an attribute of a successful performance goal is whether it aligns with division and agency-wide goals," the report's authors said. "Agency performance goals that do not link to program goals can lead to incentives and behaviors that do not support the achievement of division or agency-wide goals."

To learn more:
- read the GAO report (.pdf)