FCC looks to expand funding for the Rural Health Care Program to support telemedicine and virtual care

FCC headquarters
The FCC wants input from the industry about how to expand the Rural Health Care Program's annual funding cap.

Weeks after voting to provide a short-term funding boost for a program that supports broadband access for rural healthcare providers, the Federal Communications Commission is considering raising the annual funding cap moving forward to provide lasting support for telemedicine programs that require high-speed internet.

The FCC outlined its proposed changes to the Rural Health Care Program (RHCP) in a notice posted to the Federal Register and requested industry input on how to raise the program's current cap of $400 million.

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Last month, on the same day FCC commissioners officially repealed net neutrality regulations, the agency also voted to waive the RHCP’s $400 million funding cap for fiscal year 2017—which runs from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018—and carry forward any unused funds from prior years. Both the American Hospital Association and the National Rural Health Association have previously called on the FCC to increase the annual cap.  

Because the annual cap has not changed since the program’s inception in 1997, one consideration proposed by the FCC going forward is to adjust for inflation over that 20-year period, which would bring the cap to $571 million in 2017. But the agency countered that such an increase could lead to greater fraud, waste and abuse given the skyrocketing demand the program has seen in recent years.

The FCC also proposed reforming the agency’s definition or “rural” and prioritizing funding within the RHCP program based on the remoteness of an area served by an organization requesting funding.

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The benefits the program will provide for telemedicine and remote monitoring were virtually undisputed in the document, making “a well-designed RHC Program more vital than ever," according to the FCC. The notice highlighted specific benefits of video conferencing for women with high-risk pregnancies, transmitting x-rays to off-site radiologists and allowing surgeons to perform emergency procedures remotely,

“It is therefore crucial that the benefits of the RHC Program are fully realized across the nation,” the notice stated. “But current RHC Program rules and procedures may be holding back the promise of the RHC Program for the rural healthcare providers that need it most.”