Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai drafted an order to his colleagues to increase the annual funding cap by nearly 43%, from $400 million to $571 million for the Rural Health Care Program. The program provides telecommunications and broadband services to rural communities that support telemedicine. If approved, the $171 million increase would take effect immediately to address funding shortfalls and improve telemedicine care in rural areas.
In 1996, Congress mandated that the FCC use Universal Service Fund to support telecommunications and information services to eligible providers in rural communities to enable telemedicine, transmit health records, and conduct telehealth activities. However, the cap for the Rural health Care Program was never inflated since it was set in 1997, causing the funding to outpace the budget.
According to Health Data Management, 31 senators warned Pai that unless the spending cap is raised appropriately to current and future needs, the providers may experience severe rate increases for their services, making it harder for rural practitioners to engage in life-saving telemedicine. On the other hand, American Hospital Association concurs that the Rural Health Care Program needs to be updated and the funding is critical to improve lives of rural Americans. Pai is hoping his colleagues will support the funding increase and prevent delay.