Alaska hospital maintains internet access, avoids closure

Officials with Cordova (Alaska) Community Medical Center, a 23-bed critical access hospital, said in May the facility could close due to cuts to a federal program that subsidizes the hospital's telecommunications costs. However, the hospital was able to maintain its internet service and remain open, according to KTUU.

The federal Rural Health Care Program provides up to $400 million annually to medical providers in rural areas for telecommunications and broadband services necessary for the provision of healthcare. In March, Universal Service Administrative Company, the program's independent administrator, announced it would reduce RHC Program funding for fiscal year 2017 by 15 percent for individual participants and 25 percent for consortia participants.

"Unfortunately, these deep reductions were announced eight months into the funding year, and were far greater than anticipated," the American Hospital Association wrote in an April 24 letter to Federal Communications Commission Secretary Marlene H. Dortch. "These cuts not only affect the ability of these rural healthcare providers to maintain strong broadband connections but also could force tough decisions affecting funding for essential healthcare services."

The AHA said the cuts were "especially disheartening" to rural hospitals with slim operating margins that had already set their budgets for 2018. Cordova Community Medical Center is one of those hospitals, and it received a letter May 2 from its data services provider seeking $964,370 in back costs.

"We are now 10 months into the current funding year and your funding request is still being put through an 'enhanced review' by USAC," stated the letter from Alaska Communications to Cordova Community Medical Center. Alaska Communications said it had used its own cash to pay third parties to maintain the hospital's data service, but it was unable to keep providing those funds.

Alaska Communications requested the hospital pay the full amount due by June 30 or face disconnection of services  July 1.

However, the hospital was able to avoid disconnection, Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Association CEO Becky Hultberg told KTUU. She didn't provide specifics about how the hospital maintained its internet service, but she said the overarching funding issue is being addressed.

"The good news is that the FCC in the last couple of weeks has decided to index that fund to inflation and to raise the amount of money available in the fund, so the bigger long-term issue that prompted this whole situation is being resolved," she told KTUU.

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