Improving access, availability of rural health care through telecommunications services

Sen. John Thune (R-SD) introduced a bill that would include skilled nursing facilities (SNF) as a type of health care provider under Section 254(h) of the Communications Act of 1934. The bill, S. 1916, would amend the Communications Act to permit SNFs to apply for support from the Universal Service Fund’s (USF) Rural Health Care Program (RHCP). The USF’s RHCP provides funding for telecommunications and broadband services used to provide health care in rural communities. Under the Communications Act, certain types of health care providers are eligible to receive RHCP support; SNFs are currently not included.

When the Federal Communications Commission updated the RHCP and created the Healthcare Connect Fund (HCF) in 2012, it proposed to implement a pilot program to examine funding SNFs. Under the FCC’s HCF the agency made available up to $400 million to providers to create and expand telemedicine networks nationwide. The financial investment was meant to build on the success of an FCC rural healthcare pilot program, as well as expand the FCC’s healthcare broadband initiative from pilot to permanent program.

In January 2014, the FCC deferred implementation of the pilot program, and, in June 2014, Sen. Thune sent a letter to the FCC urging it to resume implementation of the pilot program. The FCC at the time noted that SNFs could still participate in the HCF by joining health care provider networks and taking advantage of group purchases by consortia and other efficiencies.