House Energy & Commerce Committee Clears Six Bills That Prioritize Public Safety and FCC Oversight
April 29, 2016 12:13 PM
The House Energy & Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI-6), held a markup on Thursday, April 28, to consider several bills that would improve Americans’ access to public safety, enhance spectrum efficiency, and bring broadband to skilled nursing facilities (SNFs). The following bills were approved by the Committee: H.R. 2031, Anti-Swatting Act of 2015; H.R. 3998, Securing Access to Networks in Disasters Act; H.R. 4111, Rural Health Care Connectivity Act of 2015; H.R. 4167, Kari’s Law Act of 2015; H.R. 4190, Spectrum Challenge Prize Act of 2015; and H.R. 4889, the Kelsey Smith Act.
“As we move forward with these bills, we continue our work towards more modern and effective communications laws. There is no question that this industry is driving our economy in so many ways, and it is our job to make sure that the law doesn’t unnecessarily stand in the way of that progress,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR-2), chairman of the E&C Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, which approved the bills the week before.
Upton agreed on the value of the legislation. “Whether it’s dialing 9-1-1, providing tools to law enforcement, or promoting connectivity during disasters, today’s bills help Americans in times of emergency,” he said. “They modernize communications laws and continue to enable technology to improve the lives of folks back in Michigan and across the country.”
Of particular interest to long-term, post-acute care (LTPAC) providers is H.R. 4111, the Rural Health Care Connectivity Act of 2015, which expands the statutory definition of “health care provider” to include SNFs. The bill would make SNFs eligible for support from the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program (RHCP) in order to increase access to telemedicine and improve exchange of electronic health records.
The National Association for Home Care & Hospice (NAHC) has argued for further expanding the definition of “health care provider” to include other providers in additions to SNFs. NAHC has long stressed the need for broadband services among home health agencies, a priority that appears in its yearly legislative blueprint. NAHC will continue addressing this issue and seeking chances to work with Congress in recognizing the important role home health plays in providing post-acute care to seniors in rural and underserved parts of the nation. Other stakeholders are also arguing that Congress should extend broadband to other providers given the increasing importance of telehealth services under Medicare or Medicaid.
In 1997, the FCC implemented the directives of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 by creating the RHCP funded by the Universal Service Fund. The program provided subsidies to rural health care providers to offset the costs of telecommunications and Internet services. According to the 1996 act, eligibility for funding under the RHCP is limited to public or nonprofit entities.
Despite funding from the RHCP, the 2010 National Broadband Plan (NBP) noted the existence of a gap in health IT broadband connectivity, particularly in rural areas. Among other things, the NBP recommended various reforms to the RHCP. Among them was having the FCC re-examine the interpretation of “health-care provider” in light of developing trends in the provision of health care.
In 2012 the FCC created the Healthcare Connect Fund to reform, expand, and modernize the RHCP. The FCC acknowledged that SNFs provide some of the “same post-acute services that are traditionally provided at hospitals,” though it could not conclude whether or under what circumstances an SNF might qualify as a health care provider according to the 1996 act. Meanwhile the FCC did establish a pilot program for testing how to support broadband connectivity in nonprofit SNFs, but in 2014, the FCC announced that it was deferring the program.