- The Federal Communications Commission has introduced reforms to the Rural Health Care Program intended to make it easier for hospitals and other medical providers in remote areas to receive access to broadband and telecommunications services.
- The FCC simplified how RHC funding is distributed to favor providers if the area they serve is particularly rural or medically underserved. Additionally, the application process for the program has been streamlined.
- Competitive bidding for rural broadband services will also be simplified to "make it a more productive mechanism" for providers, according to an FCC statement.
One central component of the RHC, the Healthcare Connect Fund Program, allows rural providers to purchase an array of broadband services at a 65% discount. Another, the Telecommunications Program, allows them to obtain telecom services at rates comparable to those charged by urban providers.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, raised in rural Kansas by two physicians who practiced at a local hospital, has made it a priority to increase funding to improve communications tech in rural areas, particularly among medical providers. Last year, the FCC raised the annual funding cap for the RHC by 43%, to $571 million from $400 million, after two consecutive years where demand significantly exceeded the cap. Additionally, the most isolated providers in the most medically underserved areas will be given priority to accessing funds.
Some other components of the RHC have also been problematic, beyond just its lack of funds. Telecomm companies offer discounts to providers without much transparency, a process some say allows rate manipulation. Instead, the FCC will now be more closely involved in that process and will furnish providers a more specific list of prices and services.
Due to these changes, rural providers will "have greater insight into the amount of support available for requested services, " Pai said in a statement. "They will receive funding decisions more quickly so that they can focus on delivering cutting-edge healthcare to their patients. And these reforms will also reduce waste by ending communications service providers’ ability to manipulate the calculation of rates for their own benefit."
But the changes are not without critics on both sides of the aisle.
FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, was wary of the new process for distributing funds, noting in a statement that "it puts in place a new funding scheme for the Telecommunications Program that has never been tested, modeled, or assessed for its impact on the rural health facilities that rely on the program today."
Republican Michael O’Rielly voiced concern that urban providers would still be able to receive some limited funding, and Republican Geoffrey Starks also concurred on the uncertainty, noting that "the order does not describe or analyze the expected impact of these changes for healthcare providers or for the telecommunications providers who provide service to them."