A group of 15 Democratic senators, led by Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii), have written to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to express concern about his management of the agency’s Rural Health Care (RHC) program and the FCC’s “failure to ensure that our nation’s health care providers have the resources they need to engage in telehealth.”
“Your actions over the last three and one half years since becoming Chairman, and especially over the last six months during the coronavirus pandemic, have shown your unwillingness to take decisive action within your power and the Commission’s mandate to help our nation’s health care providers. Specifically, the Commission has not made sufficient funding available, has delayed rural health care funding decisions, and has not been transparent about its operations. We urge you to address these issues as soon as possible,” the senators said in a letter to Mr. Pai dated yesterday.
They noted that, despite the FCC’s increase in the funding cap for the RHC Program in 2018, “funding requests continue to be greater than the Commission’s funding levels. Moreover, although the Commission proposed an overall cap on the Universal Service Fund as a way to ‘limit the contribution burden borne by ratepayers,’ you had no qualms about raising the contribution factor to collect an additional $100 million for the overlapping Connected Care Pilot Program created under your leadership. It is troubling that you are able to make adequate funding available for programs you create, but not for those lawfully established by Congress.”
They also criticized Mr. Pai for the FCC’s failure under his leadership to provide timely guidance to the Universal Service Administrative Co. on prioritizing applications when funding demand exceeds supply.
“In early March, you infused more money into the RHC Program by rolling over funding available for future years to respond to the increasing demand. While on the one hand this is positive, on the other hand, these rollover funds were only available because the extreme delays in processing applications from the previous year were so significant that applicants did not have a chance to spend the funding that was ultimately committed to them,” the senators noted.
“The coronavirus pandemic has continued to exacerbate increasing demands on the RHC Program. The waiver of Medicare restrictions to encourage telehealth visits, coupled with states’ stay-at-home orders, have required many health care providers to increase their broadband capacity to enable greater use of telehealth. Although the use of telehealth has increased dramatically during the pandemic, a widely cited barrier is broadband availability,” they added.
The senators asked Mr. Pai to respond to a series of questions by Sept. 2, including why the FCC waited “until the start of the pandemic to give USAC the guidance it needed to prioritize applications for FY 2019 funding”; what the agency will “do in the future to hasten the pace of processing applications for the RHC program”; and why the FCC decided “to increase the contribution factor to raise $100 million for the upcoming Connected Care Pilot, but refuses to increase the RHC fund for existing health care provider needs.
They also asked, “What RHC programmatic rules regarding eligibility or subsidy rates has the Commission revised to provide health care providers more support for broadband during the pandemic? Will the Commission amend its policies to allow providers using telehealth to immediately increase their broadband network capacity to handle the crisis, as applicants have requested?”
They asked, “Why hasn’t the Commission increased the subsidies for RHC Program participants during the FY 2019 funding year and beyond to address the urgent need for more telehealth across America?”
And they asked, “Why hasn’t the Commission provided greater transparency regarding the demand for RHC and COVID-19 Telehealth Program funding? What specific actions will the Commission take to provide greater transparency about these programs?” They asked for a “specific timeline for when the Commission plans to implement these steps.”
An FCC spokesman said, “Chairman Pai has made telehealth a priority under his watch, taking actions like increasing funding for the Rural Healthcare Program for the first time in its history and launching the COVID-19 Telehealth Program in a matter of weeks. The FCC's record of decisive, bipartisan action to benefit consumers stands in stark contrast to the signatories of this letter. For months, Chairman Pai has made clear that Congress needs to step up to the plate and make more funding available for connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic—including at least $430 million in funding for the highly successful but underfunded COVID-19 Telehealth Program. It's disappointing that Congressional Democrats continue to prioritize partisan politics over legislative action that would give the FCC the funds it needs to extend its record of success."
Joining Sen. Schatz on the letter were 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.). —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
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