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MI Sen. Peters urges FCC to expand rural health program

U.S. Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), on May 15, joined a bipartisan group of 30 Senators in urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase the funding cap for a program aimed at improving the quality of health care available to patients in rural areas.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the Senators highlight the need to strengthen the Rural Health Care (RHC) Program to address the shortage of broadband connectivity for rural health care providers. The program has been improving the quality of health care available in rural America since 1997, but has never seen a funding increase despite increased demand.

“In 2016, for the first time ever, the demand for RHC funding exceeded the cap and funding to recipients was reduced by 7.5 percent,” the Senators wrote. “Further, it was recently announced that RHC applicants will suffer a devastating cutback in funding of 16 to 26 percent in funding year 2017 because of continued growth in demand. Unless the spending cap is raised appropriately to account for current needs and future growth, health care providers in rural areas will encounter severe rate increases for their broadband services, making it even harder for rural health care practitioners to engage in life-saving telemedicine.”

In the Senate, Peters has been a strong advocate for expanded access to both health care and broadband in rural areas. He introduced the bipartisan Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act that would pave the way for Medicare to cover additional telehealth services and the bipartisan Rural Wireless Access Act that would require the FCC to collect up-to-date and accurate data on wireless broadband coverage.

Peters was joined in sending the letter by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Shelley Capito (R-WV), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tom Carper (D-DE), Bob Casey (D-PA), Susan Collins (R-ME), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), John Hoeven (R-ND), Doug Jones (D-AL), Angus King (I-ME), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Jon Tester (D-MT), Tom Udall (D-NM) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD),

The full text of the letter to Chairman Pai is available below and here.

Dear Chairman Pai,

We write in reference to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) adopted Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Order (NPRM and Order) seeking comment on how to strengthen the Rural Health Care (RHC) Program. This program has grown in importance since its inception and we urge the FCC to sufficiently increase the current funding cap to account for the current demand and future growth of the program’s recipients.

The RHC program has been improving the quality of health care available to patients in rural areas since 1997. The FCC initially established the Telecommunications Program to ensure that rural hospitals and health care providers did not pay more for telecommunications services than their urban counterparts. Since then, the program has grown to include the Healthcare Connect Fund, which provides financial support to consortia that build out broadband networks to connect rural and urban health care providers.  In 2016, Congress added skilled nursing facilities to the list of eligible entities and according to the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, the estimated total number of eligible institutions has more than doubled since the program was created. Yet the program’s $400 million annual cap has remained the same for over 20 years.

In 2016, for the first time ever, the demand for RHC funding exceeded the cap and funding to recipients was reduced by 7.5 percent. Further, it was recently announced that RHC applicants will suffer a devastating cutback in funding of 16 to 26 percent in funding year 2017 because of continued growth in demand.  Unless the spending cap is raised appropriately to account for current needs and future growth, health care providers in rural areas will encounter severe rate increases for their broadband services, making it even harder for rural health care practitioners to engage in life-saving telemedicine. A recent survey done by the Journal of Rural Health shows that 59 percent of non-metro health clinics have less than a 10 megabit per second connection, which is one percent of the gigabit capacity recommended by the National Broadband Plan.  This shortage of broadband connectivity highlights the amount of work still to be done to support and connect rural health care providers to 21st century technologies.

We applaud the FCC for taking the preliminary steps to seek comment on how to strengthen the RHC program and improve access to telehealth in rural America. As you move toward a final decision in this proceeding, we urge you to sufficiently increase the current funding cap to account for the current demand and future growth of the program’s recipients. Thank you for your consideration.

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