FCC plans to consider a funding boost for rural telehealth programs in 2017 and beyond

FCC commissioners plan to discuss possible funding increases for the Rural Health Care Program in a December open meeting.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a proposal to increase funding for its Rural Health Care Program, as demand is projected to outpace the available capital for the second straight year.

The FCC issued (PDF) a notice of proposed rulemaking and order last week that would provide an immediate boost to the program’s $400 million annual cap for fiscal year (FY) 2017, along with a longer-term proposal to increase the program's funding limit. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai added the proposal to the tentative agenda for the agency’s next open meeting on Dec. 14.

The RHCP fund, which was established in 1997 to help rural providers get access to broadband internet, which provides the infrastructure for telehealth and remote monitoring programs. Historically, funding requests have come in well under the cap, but recently the FCC has seen a “dramatic increase” in funding requests both in volume and dollar value. Last year, that demand exceeded the cap by $20 million, which led the FCC to prorate funding requests. The agency expects similar demands in FY 2017, which runs from July 1, 2017 through June 20, 2018.

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One possible metric for increasing the fund would be adjusting for inflation since 1997, which would increase the total to $517 million in 2017. The agency is also considering revamping the way it prioritizes eligible funding requests based on the rurality or remoteness of healthcare providers.

In the short term, however, the FCC is considering an order in which the program would carry forward any unused funds from prior years to use on a one-time basis in 2017. 

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“Since the time the cap was set, the RHC Program has grown and changed and now, under the [Healthcare Connect Fund] Program, covers more services than its predecessor program,” the notice states. “With this change in RHC Program eligibility comes an increased demand for services. Likewise, advances in technology have improved telehealth and telemedicine capabilities and with it a need for expanded bandwidth.”

The American Hospital Association (AHA) and the National Rural Health Association have both urged the FCC to increase the annual funding limits of the RHCP. In a letter to the FCC, the AHA argued that the 20-year-old cap “is no longer sufficient to meet burgeoning demand.”