FCC reforming Rural Health Care Program to improve telehealth funding in addition to Connected Care Pilot (US)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted last week to adopt a 151 page “report and order” which will reform how the agency distributes money for rural telehealth support and broadband services through the Rural Health Care Program. Rural telehealth has been one of the FCC’s most popular programs with demand exceeding funding.

The new policy will, according to the order:

  • Reduce fraud, waste, and abuse (FWA)
  • Streamline and simplify the calculation behind the discounted communication rates that healthcare providers pay
  • Move to create a database of rates (transparency)
  • Simplify the application process
  • In the likely event that demand for the RHCP exceeds its funding cap (currently $571 million), the program will target funding to the most rural areas (based on rurality tiers) and those facing shortages of health care providers
  • Directs the Program Administrator to take additional actions to increase transparency in the program and applicants receiving timely, complete information

According to Modern Healthcare, subsidies on the telecom rates will be based on the median rates telecommunications providers charge for similar services in the state and the rurality tier (how rural the location is) for the healthcare provider. There is some bi-partisan debate on delaying the change due to local concerns, the level of funding (generally seen as too limited) and the relative experience of the Universal Service Administrative Company to determine those rates. Some urban areas do receive funding in the program, which is a puzzle to this Editor, but was probably baked in from its start in 1997 when certain neighborhoods had little connectivity. The FCC is also proposing a cap on Universal Service Fund programs, one of which is the RHCP. Sen. Marsha Blackburn also entered a bill which would direct the FCC to develop guidance on cross-state telehealth in the Telehealth Across State Lines Act of 2019. POLITICO 2 Aug.

The RHCP is separate from the Connected Care Pilot, which moved ahead in July and will bring telehealth services directly to rural low-income patients and veterans. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was issued on 10 July. One wishes that this bickering Congress would understand the importance of both programs. FCC release, TTA 20 June

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