Law360 (June 30, 2020, 5:46 PM EDT) -- The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday ordered almost $198 million in unused funds to be directed to its Rural Health Care Program, shoring up an initiative that is facing demand and receiving attention due to the need for telehealth services during the coronavirus pandemic.
The FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau told the Universal Service Administrative Co., which administers the broadband subsidy program for rural health care providers, to carry forward up to $197.98 million in untouched funds from prior funding years.
The commission said the Rural Health Care Program could have as much of the available funds necessary to satisfy demand.
"Today's announcement speaks to the FCC's commitment to ensuring that rural health care providers can continue to serve their communities during this difficult time and well into the future," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.
The commission said broadband funding requests from health care providers have outpaced the funding cap of the program in recent years. In 2018, the commission addressed the rising demand by increasing the annual funding cap, allowing the cap to be adjusted for inflation and establishing a process where unused funds from previous years could be carried forward and utilized.
Pai said the FCC's "foresight" in the 2018 reforms was "fortuitous," given telehealth's critical role in the fight against COVID-19.
With Monday's announcement, the Rural Health Care Program's funding cap for 2020 rose to $802.74 million from $604.76 million. The new funding cap is the highest in the program's history, according to the FCC.
On top of the large increase in funds for rural health care providers, the FCC said in March that it was working to quickly distribute $200 million allocated by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to support telehealth services — including the purchasing of broadband connections for patients and at-home devices that assist with monitoring programs.
In April, lawmakers introduced a bill that would give the FCC $2 billion for the Rural Health Care Program amid the pandemic. The proposed amount was triple the FCC's then-$604.76 million budget for the program.
The bill also aimed to broaden the Rural Health Care Program to include temporary coronavirus centers, along with urban and suburban facilities. The bill, backed by Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Don Young, R-Alaska, was referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
The FCC did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
--Additional reporting by Kelcee Griffis, Stephen Cooper, and Anne Cullen. Editing by Kelly Duncan.
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