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FCC Votes to Boost Rural Health Care Funding

A majority of FCC commissioners have voted to boost the Universal Service Fund's Rural Health Care Program by $171 million, according to FCC chairman Ajit Pai. The program is a Universal Service Fund subsidy for broadband-facilitated diagnosis and treatment.

The chairman thanked Commissioners Michael O'Rielly and Brendan Carr for their support and said "updating" the program will help deliver "critical telemedicine services."

In circulating the proposal to the other commissioners June 6, the chairman said the move was to avoid a funding 'crisis.'

The current cap on the annual fund, launched in 1997, is $400 million, but Pai had circulated a proposal to the other commissioners to raise it to $571 million, saying that demand has outstripped the supply of money.

Pai pointed out that the cap did not have an inflation adjustment and that the new figure is simply 1997's $400 million in 2018 dollars. he also signaled in circulating the item that the issue was personal as well as professional. "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," he said.

Pai noted the "strong" bipartisan backing in Congress and in the healthcare community, and backed that up with an email release citing a dozen legislators and groups praising the move.

Related: Ajit Pai, Newton Minow Team to Promote Telehealth

“Whether you live in a large city or a small town, you shouldn’t have to worry about getting medical treatment when you need it," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "This funding will help ensure that no matter where Marylanders live, they have access to quality health care.”

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition is extremely pleased with Chairman Pai’s intention to increase funding for the Rural Health Care program," said Executive Director John Windhausen, Jr. "This increase is long overdue, as the $400 million cap on the RHC program has remained set in stone for over twenty years. This proposal also addresses our concerns about the retroactive funding reductions for FY 2017 by ensuring that applicants in the current funding year can be fully reimbursed. This action will avoid the unfortunate 15% to 25% reductions that had been announced for the current funding year.”

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel had not yet voted the item, which won't be adopted until she casts her vote or a waiting period expires.

“We are actively reviewing the item," said a Rosenworcel aide. "The Commissioner will cast her vote soon when that review is complete.”

The item had only been on circulation for about six business days when the Republicans voted it.