FCC asks for comments on rural health program for broadband

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering changes to the popular Rural Health Care Program (RHCP), a fund that helps rural health providers access broadband for telehealth and health information exchange. The RHCP is capped at $400 million per year, but for the last two years, requests exceeded the cap.

With increased attention to broadband’s role in rural development generally and its role in healthcare delivery specifically, many stakeholders believe demand on the RHCP will continue to increase, particularly in states with large rural areas. The National Rural Health Association and the American Hospital Association have called for raising the cap to keep up with demand. One analyst noted that the RHCP is a victim of its own success as more providers have turned to the fund due to both growing interest in telehealth and the need for broadband to comply with federal regulations on health information technology. Additionally, Congress recently made skilled nursing facilities eligible to participate, increasing the number of providers potentially able to apply for funding.

In response, the FCC is seeking public comments on possible changes to the RHCP, including raising the RHCP cap. However, the FCC questioned whether increasing the cap will lead to greater incidents of waste, fraud, and abuse. Additionally, the FCC is interested in comments on whether the FCC should adopt certain factors to prioritize which providers should receive a grant.

Interested parties must submit comments by February 2.

Cuomo Unveils Environmental Agenda in State of the State Address

In his State of the State Address this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a range of new proposals aimed at deepening the state’s commitment to renewable energy and pollution-reduction programs. Here is a brief summary:

RGGI: Cuomo will direct state environmental regulators to issue a rulemaking to implement a 30-percent reduction in the cap on greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants that are covered by the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Member states agreed to the cap reduction last August. In addition, Cuomo said that New York would, for the first time, include revisions to cover smaller, older peaking plants with less than 25 megawatts of capacity, which until now have not been included in RGGI. RGGI currently covers power plants that are 25 megawatts or greater.  Cuomo said that state officials would work with environmental justice communities to ensure that they benefit equitably from RGGI auction proceeds. Since 2013, RGGI has provided over $2 billion in regional economic benefits and $5.7 billion in public health benefits, according to the governor’s office.

Cuomo also pledged to adopt regulations ending the use of coal in the state’s power plants by 2020.

Offshore Wind: Cuomo announced the state would be issuing two RFPs for the development of 800 megawatts of electricity produced by offshore wind farms, enough to power 400,000 homes. Last year, Cuomo set a target of getting half of the state’s power from renewable sources by 2030, and proposed developing 2.4 gigawatts of offshore wind by that time. Other states in the region are aggressively promoting offshore wind, including Massachusetts, where legislation signed by Governor Charlie Baker in 2016 requires utilities to procure 1.6 gigawatts of power from offshore wind in a little over 10 years. Last May, Maryland regulators approved two wind farms with a combined generating capacity of 369 megawatts to be built at least 14 miles off the state’s coastline.

Clean Energy Workforce Development: Cuomo said that he would direct the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to invest $15 million in clean-energy workforce development and infrastructure advancement to train workers for jobs in the offshore wind industry. He is also directing state agencies to identify potential public and private offshore wind port infrastructure investments. Several other states in the region are working to attract significant private investment, and become a manufacturing “hub” for the offshore wind industry as it takes shape here.

Community Solar:  NYSERDA will provide community solar subscriptions for more than 10,000 low-income customers, at zero cost, and work with various stakeholders to determine how the program can better serve low-income New Yorkers.

Energy Storage: Cuomo is launching an initiative to deploy 1,500 megawatts of energy storage by 2025 and employ 30,000 workers. The governor also proposed that the New York Green Bank commit at least $200 million for storage-related investments to help drive down costs and to strategically deploy energy storage in places where the grid needs it most. The governor also is directing NYSERDA to invest at least $60 million in storage pilots and activities to reduce barriers to deploying energy storage. New York is one of four states that have energy storage mandates or targets in place. They include California (1,825 MW by 2024); Massachusetts (200 MW by 2020); and Oregon (5 megawatt-hours per utility by 2020).

Reconvene the Scientific Advisory Committee on Climate Change: After announcing plans to exit the United States from the international climate-change pact known as the Paris Agreement, the current administration disbanded the federal government’s climate advisory committee. Cuomo announced that he would reconvene the advisory committee, in collaboration with members of the bipartisan U.S. Climate Alliance, which he formed in June 2017 with the governors of California and Washington State, and currently includes 15 member states.

Congress passes short-term relief for CHIP

One of the “big ticket” items for Congress to address is the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Although CHIP’s authorization had expired on September 30, 2017, Congress included passed a six-month patch with $2.85 billion as part of H.R. 1370, which also funds the federal government through January 19, 2018. In addition to these new funds, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has roughly $1.7 billion remaining in carryover CHIP funding; CMS has already distributed $1.2 billion to 16 states and the District of Columbia that were close to experiencing a shortfall.

Even so, some advocates worry whether Congress will be able to pass a five-year reauthorization before the short-term patch expires. The Center for Children and Families at Georgetown notes that annual federal spending on CHIP is about $14.5 billion, suggesting that $2.85 billion for six months will be insufficient for states’ needs. Moreover, the lack of certainty is hurting states’ ability to plan and manage their programs for the upcoming year and beyond, and some states are considering dramatic changes to their CHIP-funded programs if Congress fails to pass a full five-year reauthorization.

 

Written by Oliver J. Kim, CSG/ERC Health Policy Consultant