The FCC has approved four proposals and is seeking comment on four items related to the Rural Health Care (RHC) Program, which provides financial support to eligible health care providers for high-speed broadband and telecom services.

The goal of the changes is to address existing problems and ultimately make it easier for healthcare providers to receive support, reduce funding commitment delays and improve the efficiency of the program.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel cited the FCC’s long-term support of rural health care through two programs. These include the Rural Health Care program and the Telecom Program. The latter seeks to equalize the amount providers are charged for broadband services in rural and urban areas.

Rosenworcel said that databases mandated to assess those costs were flawed and had not been used for two years. Instead, the commission had been offering waivers to applicants.

“Today, we fix it for good,” Rosenworcel said in a prepared statement. “In fact, we bid [the database] goodbye and return to the earlier system that worked for providers and helped grow this telemedicine program into what it is today. We also continue to allow participants to use already-approved rates for an additional two funding years, to ensure the smooth operation of the program.  Finally, we take steps to simplify our invoicing rules and reduce funding delays and we ask questions about how to improve the program going forward.”

The actions taken this week will resolve petitions for reconsideration on issues from the August 2019 “Promoting Telehealth Report and Order” and adopt proposals from a February 2022 Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

The steps taken:

  • Granting petitions for reconsideration to restore the prior rate determination rules and eliminate rules requiring the Rates Database for the Telecom Program.
  • Amending the RHC Telecom Program invoicing processes to eliminate the Health Care Provider Support Schedule and move invoice submission until after services have been provided.
  • Amending the internal cap application and prioritization rules to promote efficiency, reduce delays in funding commitments, and prioritize support for the current funding year.
  • Dismissing as moot Applications for Review of the Bureau’s guidance to the Universal Service Administrative Company regarding the Rates Database.

The Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking adopted today seeks comment on:

  • Fine-tuning the rules for determining rural and urban rates in the RHC Telecom Program.
  • Reinstating the cap on support for satellite services in the Telecom Program that existed before the adoption of the Rates Database.
  • Making it easier for health care providers to receive RHC Program funding as soon as the providers become eligible.
  • Revisions to data collected in the Telecom Program.

The importance and promise of telehealth generally and the role of the FCC in particular came into vivid focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 100 applications approved in the FCC’s COVID-19 telehealth program totaled almost $48 million.

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