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The Federal Communications Commission is adding almost $200 million to the Rural Health Care Program, giving providers more resources to expand broadband connectivity to support telehealth and mHealth platforms.

By Eric Wicklund

June 30, 2020 – Federal officials are adding almost $200 million to a fund designed to help rural healthcare providers expand their broadband resources, giving them more opportunities to improve the reach of their telehealth and mHealth platforms.

The Federal Communications Commission announced today that the Universal Service Administrative Company, which oversees the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program, will be carrying forward $197.98 million in unused funding from past years to bolster the program.

The action comes just two years after the FCC voted to change how the 23-year-old program is funded, in response to a sharp increase in rural providers looking for help expanding broadband connectivity. Up until that year, the fund’s cap had been set at $400 million. The agency voted to add $171 million to that year’s fund and create a formula that would scale the funding upwards each year. For 2020, the program’s cap was set at $604.76 million.

“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,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a June 30 press release. “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.”

“And now, more than ever, our foresight is fortuitous, as telehealth is proving to be critical in our fight against COVID-19,” he added. “Today’s announcement 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.”

Today’s announcement closely follows news that the FCC has stopped accepting applications for funding from the $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Fund, launched in April out of the CARES Act to help providers expand their broadband and telemedicine platforms to address the ongoing coronavirus. Officials said they expect to run out of money within the month.

Broadband has long been a sticking point in the adoption and expansion of connected health programs, particularly in rural and remote parts of the country. Healthcare providers need reliable connectivity – in hospitals and practices as well as rural clinics and homes – to ensure telehealth access. But that connectivity comes at a price.

Congress has also sought to build up the account. In May, a group of Senators introduced the Health Care Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act, which seeks to set aside $2 billion from the next coronavirus relief package for the Rural Health Care Fund and expand how and to whom that program disburses money.

“The Rural Health Care Program is an integral piece of providing quality healthcare to Alaskans in small, remote communities – many of which are not connected to a road system,” Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said in a press release. “Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the demand for telehealth. Unfortunately, as a result, the Rural Health Care Program has already outpaced the funding it was allocated prior to the outbreak and telehealth providers are facing significant connectivity challenges in their effort to provide care.” 

“As we navigate the challenges of COVID-19, and ease the restrictions for telehealth use, the demand for this program will only continue to increase,” she added. “This legislation is imperative to enable healthcare providers to increase their broadband capacity and expand their ability to provide healthcare to those in need.”

The FCC said the additional funding would push the Rural Health Care Program’s cap to $802.74 million for 2020, the most in the program’s history.

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