Fifteen Democratic Senators penned a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on August 20, pushing Chairman Ajit Pai to increase funding for and improve transparency about rural healthcare operations.
The Rural Health Care (RHC) program run by FCC funds telecommunications and broadband services for healthcare providers to improve the quality of care for patients in rural areas. While FCC-sponsored programs like the Connected Care Pilot Program continue to receive additional funds, the senators asserted, the RHC program established by Congress has not been adequately funded during Pai’s tenure.
“Although the use of telehealth has increased dramatically during the pandemic, a widely cited barrier is broadband availability,” the letter led by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, states. “Cash-strapped health care providers are looking to the RHC Program for help to defray these costs, but you have so far not taken steps that would allow health care providers to receive additional support through the program for broadband connectivity.”
As the RHC program faces a backlog of applications, the senators said that FCC leadership has failed to provide guidance on prioritizing applications causing applicants to wait months or years on a decision. According to the letter, funding delays were so significant that applicants did not have the chance to spend funding that was committed to them, causing the money to rollover.
FCC has also yet to release information about the COVID-19 Telehealth Program funding awards and the demand for RHC program funding, despite a commission order saying that the information was forthcoming. “Your failure to successfully manage and lead the RHC Program and associated policies is extremely disappointing and surprising in light of your public statements,” the senators wrote.
The letter was signed by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Tom Udall, D-N.M., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Gary Peters, D-Mich., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Tom Carper, D-Del.
The senators are requesting Pai’s response to five questions about the funding and transparency of rural healthcare funding by September 3.