With new funding, FCC rural healthcare program set to provide most money in its history

Dive Brief:

  • The Federal Communications Commission has added $198 million to its rural healthcare program, which helps providers deploy broadband healthcare networks, the agency said Tuesday.
  • The unused funds from prior years are being carried forward to 2020. With the current funding cap at about $600 million, the total available for provider requests will be more than $800 million — the most in the program’s history.
  • In a statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai noted telehealth funding is especially important as the nation fights COVID-19 and use of virtual visits has skyrocketed. “Today’s announcement speaks to the FCC’s commitment to ensuring that rural health care providers can continue to serve their communities during the difficult time and well into the future.

Dive Insight:

As states in the South and West become new COVID-19 hotspots, rural providers face great challenges in preparing for patient surges while also maintaining the ability to meet other needs of patients in their communities.

Virtual visits have been a key way providers have been able to continue services without potentially exposing more people to the novel coronavirus. But rural areas especially can lack consistent access to high-speed internet connections.

The FCC program seeks to address this issue. Two years ago, the funding cap was increased and changed to adjust for inflation annually. That’s also when a process was established to allow for unused funding to be carried forward.

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, FCC has also established the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, which as of a week ago had issued nearly $160 million to 444 applicants. The window for applications closed last week.

Democratic lawmakers have protested the program’s lack of transparency, however. In a letter to Pai, Reps. Frank Pallone of New York and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania wrote: “We have heard reports that many health care providers are facing issues obtaining funds, particularly those serving tribal lands. Similarly, health care providers report they have been unable to receive funding for some important telehealth equipment that we believe should be covered under the law.”

Before the pandemic, FCC established a pilot program aimed at improving access to telehealth services for low-income people and those in rural areas. The three-year $100 million program gives an 85% discount for broadband-enabled telehealth services that directly connect doctors and patients.