FCC proposes increased funds for rural health care

Federal Communications Commission officials took steps on June 6 to significantly boost funding for the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program, a move that could bring financial relief to the Cordova Community Medical Center.

The draft order from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would increase the annual cap on the program’s current $400 million budget to $571 million.

This increase represents what the funding level would be today had the cap established in 1997 included an inflation adjustment, the FCC said.

The order would apply the increased cap to the current funding year to immediately address a critical funding crisis and enable rural health care providers to continue offering telemedicine services.  The order would also give those providers long-term certainty about universal service funding by adjusting the cap annually for inflation and allowing unused funds from prior years to be carried forward to future years.

“We are pleased Chairman Pai has proposed to increase the Rural Health Care Program budget, apply the increased cap to the current funding year and provide long-term certainty by adjusting the budget annually for inflation and allowing unused funds from prior years to be carried forward to future years,” said Healther Cavanaugh, a spokeswoman for Alaska Communications in Anchorage. “These are important steps forward for the Rural Health Care program, which is so critically important for our state. We look forward to working constructively with the FCC to ensure continued robust participation from Alaska.”

The FCC acknowledged that recently the demand for funding under the program has outpaced the budget, creating uncertainty for patients, health care providers and communications companies alike.

While the Cordova Community Medical Center has paid its approximate $1,000 share of a monthly approximate $80,000 bill for telemedicine services provided by Alaska Communications, the FCC has not paid its share since the start of the current fiscal year. The FCC said previously that it was studying the financial issue, and declined to pay its share to numerous utilities nationwide that provide rural telemedicine services.

“As the son of two doctors in rural Kansas, and having visited telemedicine projects from Alaska to Florida, I understand the critical role that broadband plays in giving patients in rural areas high quality health care services,” Pai said. “That’s why I’m pleased to announce my plan to increase funding for the FCC’s Rural health Care Program by $171 million.”

Pai acknowledge that demand for funding has outpaced the program’s funding cap and said he hopes his colleagues will support his plan without delay.