In an effort to significantly boost funding for the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program, and address shortfalls in telemedicine support, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday circulated a draft order to his colleagues urging immediate action.
Pai seeks to increase the annual fund by $171 million to $571 million, compared to the current annual funding, which has been capped at $400 million since 1997.
The total was never raised to account for inflation, Pai noted. Yet the demand for funding has outpaced the budget and the situation is creating uncertainty for patients, healthcare providers, communications companies and telemedicine providers and patients.
Pai’s proposed budget increase represents what the level would be today had the cap, which was established in 1997, included an inflation adjustment. He proposes to immediately address the crisis and make it possible for rural care providers to continue to provide telemedicine services.
The proposal has the backing of the American Hospital Association, which in April this year called for permanently adjusting the funding cap to prevent future cuts.
Telemedicine services are particularly critical for people who live in rural areas and especially so in the South, according to the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program, which is built on a 44-year history of rural health research at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The research, which blankets rural areas across the entire country, has revealed that since 2010, 83 hospitals in rural areas have closed – in all regions of the country.
Hospital closures are not new. The researchers found that they have been ticking up since the recession of 2008-2009.
Pai’s proposal aims to give 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.
“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 healthcare services,” Pai said in a statement.
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