The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday made an additional $197.98 million in funding available for its Rural Health Care Program, which helps rural healthcare providers purchase broadband and telecommunications services.
FCC officials in recent weeks have stressed the agency's commitment to supporting telemedicine access amid the coronavirus pandemic, which many have credited with spurring rapid telemedicine growth as hospitals ramped up their use of the practice to let patients receive care at home without needing to visit a facility.
The $197.98 million in additional funding represents unused Rural Health Care Program funds from previous years.
The program now totals $802.74 million in funding for eligible healthcare providers in 2020, up from its initial cap of $604.76 million. That's the highest funding amount the FCC has offered through the Rural Health Care Program in the program's history, which until recently had been capped at $400 million each year.
In an effort to address rising demand for Rural Health Care Program funds, the FCC in 2018 adopted rules to adjust the program's funding annually for inflation and to allow the agency to carry forward unused funds from past years. At the time, provider groups including the American Hospital Association had advocated for the agency to increase funding for the Rural Health Care Program.
"In 2018, the FCC took swift action to ensure that the Rural Health Care Program better reflected the needs of and advances in connected care," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement Tuesday. "Now, more than ever, our foresight is fortuitous, as telehealth is proving to be critical in our fight against COVID-19."
The FCC's decision to increase funding for the Rural Health Care Program comes less than a week after the agency closed applications for its COVID-19 Telehealth Program. FCC officials last week said the agency is on track to exhaust the $200 million that Congress allocated for the program as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
The FCC launched the COVID-19 Telehealth Program in April to provide healthcare organizations with funding to purchase broadband and telecommunications services needed to offer telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic.