The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is adding almost $200 million to a rural healthcare program to help providers buy telecommunications and broadband services.
Rural healthcare providers have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic due to the loss in revenue from canceled or deferred elective procedures and the additional expense of personal protective equipment.
At the same time, telehealth visits have surged as patients seek virtual care options during the pandemic. The Trump administration lowered regulatory barriers for rural areas. Physicians can care for patients at rural facilities across state lines and via telemedicine.
And in many places—particularly rural areas that have the most to gain from telemedicine and connectivity—broadband remains too expensive, unreliable or simply not available at the speeds required to enable innovations in care.
With an uptick in demand for telehealth services, the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau directed the Universal Service Administrative Company to carry forward up to $198 million in unused funds from prior funding years.
“In 2018, the FCC took swift action to ensure that the Rural Health Care Program better reflected the needs of and advances in connected care. Looking to the future, we gave providers more certainty by adjusting the cap annually for inflation and allowing unused funds from previous years to be carried forward,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement.
Telehealth is proving to be critical in the fight against COVID-19, Pai said.
Local community health centers, health departments, nursing homes and nonprofit hospitals can use the funds to support the technology infrastructure needed to provide virtual care.
The additional funding speaks to the FCC’s commitment to "ensuring that rural health care providers can continue to serve their communities during this difficult time and well into the future," Pai said.
Industry stakeholders have called on Congress to fund rural broadband deployment to help address a digital divide that makes telehealth services out of reach for rural patients.
A recent study found that only 38.6% of the people who live more than a 70-minute drive from a primary care physician subscribe to an internet connection capable of handling telehealth services.
The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, earmarked $200 million for the FCC's COVID-19 Telehealth Program.
To date, FCC has allocated half the total amount, almost $105 million in funding for 305 health providers to build up their telehealth infrastructure in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Interest in the Rural Health Care Program has grown in recent years and funding requests from healthcare providers for high-speed broadband had outpaced the funding cap, placing a strain on the program’s ability to increase access to broadband for healthcare providers, particularly in rural areas, the FCC said.
Two years ago, the FCC adopted rules to address this increasing demand by increasing the annual program funding cap and adjusting that cap annually for inflation.
The FCC also established a process to carry-forward unused funds from past funding years for use in future funding years.
Funding for rural health providers was capped at $604.76 million for 2020. But with additional funds rolled over from previous years, the program will now be able to dole out $802.7 million to healthcare providers, the most in the program’s history, the FCC said.