The FCC on Thursday approved several proposals to support rural health care providers with broadband costs and other communications services. The Commissioners okayed a number of proposals for the Rural Health Care (RHC) Program to make it easier for providers to receive support, reduce delays in funding commitments, and improve the overall efficiency of the program. Reliable high-speed connectivity is critical for rural health care providers to serve patients in rural areas that often have limited resources, fewer doctors, and higher rates for broadband and telecommunications services than urban areas, according to the agency.
The Commission’s RHC Program expands access to telehealth and telemedicine services by providing financial support to eligible health care providers for high-speed broadband connections and telecommunications services. One of the biggest actions was restoring clarity and certainty to the oldest part of the RHC, the Telecom Program. It offers support to rural healthcare providers for the difference between the rates they are charged for communications and those they would pay for the same facilities in urban areas.
During the meeting, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel explained that “years ago, the FCC tried to ‘fix’ the Telecom Program by setting up a series of databases designed to tell communities exactly what communications services should cost.” But the fix didn’t work, she said. “For instance, in Alaska the database featured a rate for a dedicated transmission service in the Extremely Rural tier that was lower than the rate for the same service in the Less Rural tier. In California, the database showed that a 50 Mbps connection was cheaper than a 20 Mbps connection.”
Rural healthcare authorities, their doctors, and members of Congress pointed out the database was flawed. So for the last two years the Commission waived the use of this database. “Today, we fix it for good. In fact, we bid it goodbye and return to the earlier system that worked for providers and helped grow this telemedicine program into what it is today,” said Rosenworcel.
Among other changes the Commissioners approved: The FCC will continue to allow participants to use already-approved rates for an additional two funding years, to ensure smooth operation of the program. It took steps to simplify the program’s invoicing rules and reduce funding delays. The agency also asks for input on how to improve the program going forward.
By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief