FCC extends telehealth funding eligibility

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has extended the eligibility of certain rural healthcare provider organizations for three years to receive subsidized funding of telehealth initiatives.

In March 2005, the FCC changed its definition of rural healthcare facilities and temporarily grandfathered some organizations that technically no longer qualified for the subsidies.

“Given the Commission's broad discretion to define the term ‘rural,’ the Commission also found that it is within its authority to continue providing funding to those healthcare entities that were previously eligible under the Commission's definition of that term,” the FCC noted in the final rule, published April 10 in the Federal Register. “In particular, the Commission finds it is premature to discontinue support at this time to those healthcare providers who were eligible under the definition of ‘rural’ prior to the Second Report and Order.”

The FCC has extended the grandfather period to 2011, acting under a request from the American Telemedicine Association (ATA).

“In its petition, ATA identifies multiple healthcare facilities that participate in telehealth communications networks in Nebraska and Montana that would be adversely affected by the loss in universal service rural healthcare funding if the new definition of rural were applied to their rural healthcare funding applications,” according to the rule. “This, in turn, would serve only to endanger the continued availability of telemedicine and telehealth services that these healthcare facilities provide.”

Consequently, the FCC said “that additional time is necessary to evaluate the effect of the new definition on healthcare providers before they lose support as a result of the modified definition of rural adopted in the Second Report and Order.”

The Commission also said that since only two funding years have concluded since the new definition went into effect, it would be premature to “remove previously eligible entities from the mechanism after this limited amount of time, particularly when there remains sufficient available funding.”