FCC: Rural Healthcare Program to See Big Improvements in the Future

December 23, 2010
Marisa Torrieri

A new Government Accountability Office report states that the Federal Communications Commission needs to make major management changes to its Rural Health Care Program. The FCC said those changes are underway.

The Federal Communications Commission has committed to making major improvements in response to the recent Government Accountability Office report “FCC's Performance Management Weaknesses Could Jeopardize Proposed Reforms of the Rural Health Care Program.” 

But there is no timeline as to when the FCC’s proposed improvements will be implemented.

Among the GAO’s chief complaints detailed in the 84-page report: The Rural Health Care Program, which launched in 1997 with the purpose of providing grants to fund bringing broadband infrastructure and services to rural health organizations, has not “conducted an adequate assessment of the telecommunications needs of rural health care providers on an ongoing basis.” As such, “the agency is limited in its ability to determine how well the program has addressed those needs.”

Additionally, the GAO criticized the FCC because it “has disbursed only $327 million in total over the 12 years of the primary program’s operation” though it has the green light to distribute up to $400 million per year.

The GAO also said the FCC’s “ineffective performance measures” of the program’s success will prevent the agency from obtaining “the data that it needs to make critical policy decisions” about the overall Rural Health Care Program.

The FCC addressed the GAO’s findings and its plan to revamp the Rural Health Care Program in letter that’s included on pages 69-72 of the GAO report - as well as a notice of proposed rulemaking released this summer.

A FCC spokesman told us that while there is no date for issuing a final order on reforms outlined in the proposal, “it's a high-priority item.”

Still, the 61 health organizations and their technology partners participating in the RHCP’s broadband services pilot project seem pretty content so far. Just this week, Fiberutilities Group, LLC, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, issued a press release week boasting of its success with bringing broadband to the nine rural hospitals and related clinics that are part of the Rural Nebraska Healthcare Network thanks to help from the federal funding initiatives.

Fiberutilities is not alone. Despite a lack of communications for an agency based on communications, the GAO reports that most participants “were positive about the assistance provided by the program officials and reported that the benefits they anticipate receiving from the pilot program outweigh the costs.”