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Rural Healthcare Participants Back Maintaining Interim Support Rates Amid Proposed Changes

FCC rural healthcare program participants and industry sought several changes to a draft order and NPRM proposing to modify the program’s funding mechanism. Most urged the FCC to maintain the current support methodology until a new one is established. Commissioners will consider the item Thursday.

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The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition backed the draft item’s proposal to eliminate the urban and rural rates database for determining the telecom program's subsidies, in a meeting with Wireline Bureau staff. The group raised concerns about "reverting to prior rules that were burdensome, confusing and caused significant delay.” Under the previous rules, the program was “plagued by uncertainty, shifting requirements, delayed funding commitments and disbursements, and numerous appeals of USAC decisions,” SHLB said, per an ex parte filing posted Friday in docket 17-310.

The FCC “appears to be considering all of our requests with an open mind,” emailed SHLB Executive Director John Windhausen, noting more than half of the program’s applicants are SHLB members. It’s “too early to say whether or not we support the item,” Windhausen said: “We do support the fact that the FCC is working to improve the operation of the program, but there are many more things the FCC can do to improve the effectiveness of the program and to serve more rural healthcare providers.”

SHLB asked the FCC to "retain the status quo" by continuing to use its previously approved rates through FY 2024 as it seeks comment on a new methodology and to establish a safe harbor when it's difficult to determine comparable rate in an urban area. It also sought language in the draft order seeking comment on whether the mechanism for evergreen contracts should be modified. The group sought an additional question on increasing the Healthcare Connect Fund's internal cap and whether to broaden the definition of "rural," in separate meetings with aides to all four commissioners.

The current rates databases are "unworkable for their originally intended purpose," Alaska Communications said in separate meetings with Wireline Bureau staff and aides to all commissioners, per an ex parte filing. The ISP backed maintaining the current methodology through FY 2024 until a new approach is established and sought a question on whether to impose a support cap on terrestrial services. Let program participants use the previously approved "method 3-based rates" and "previously justified rates for evergreen contracts" should the commission decline to maintain the interim methodology, said GCI Communications in separate meetings with Wireline Bureau staff, an aide to Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, and an aide to Commissioner Geoffrey Starks.

Modifying the internal cap for the Healthcare Connect Fund "will lead to greater predictability and operational efficiency,” said the New England Telehealth Consortium in separate meetings with aides to all commissioners and Wireline Bureau staff. It sought a question addressing the "appropriate size" of the support cap "given apparent significant migration” of healthcare providers from the telecom program to the Healthcare Connect Fund. ENA Healthcare Services told Wireline Bureau staff it backed the commission's proposal to allow the telecom program's invoicing rules to mirror those for the Healthcare Connect Fund "as long as service providers are allowed to continue using the existing bulk upload process for invoicing."

ADS Advanced Data Services sought clarifying language in the final item on what equipment is necessary to make internet service functional, in separate meetings with aides to all commissioners and Wireline Bureau staff. It would "help increase competition, improve service quality, and help reduce reliance on costly geosynchronous satellite services," ADS said. It also backed adding a question regarding cybersecurity products and services being eligible for support.