Anchorage health care providers discuss rural tele-health systems with FCC Commissioner

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr (right) meets with Southcentral Foundation employees during his state-wide tour. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Susskind w/ Commissioner Carr’s office)

When someone has a health problem in a rural area like Port Graham, health aides like Tania McMullen are generally the first line of defense.

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“We have three health aides, including myself,” McMullen said. “We have the health aides switch over; we take after-hour calls. So one week it’ll be one, then another one takes it.”

McMullen is video conferencing with doctors working at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr is also here, learning about the ways specialized doctors in Anchorage are able to help with issues an aide like McMullen isn’t trained or equipped to handle. Dr. Rachel Lescher is a Pediatric Endocrinologist, meaning she specializes in issues like kids diabetes. Tele-health services allow Lescher to diagnose patients who may be hundreds of miles away, off the road system.

“Trying to make people fly in with their parent escort for a half-hour, 45-minute visit every three months, when it takes a day to travel here and they spend a night at a hotel, then they spend the next night in a hotel, then they travel home and they’re missing three days of work and school… is not very practical,” Lescher said.

It may not seem like the Federal Communications Commission has a lot to do with healthcare, but in Alaska they play a major role. Rural health care providers receive subsidies from the FCC to help pay their sometimes hefty Internet bills. However, this year, the committed subsidies were less than one percent of what providers were anticipating. That resulted in some service shutdowns in rural communities like Cordova.

“For years, the program was under-subscribed, meaning we weren’t hitting the cap on the support that we would provide through the Universal Service program,” Carr said. “Last year, and the year before that, for the first time, we started hitting and going over that cap, and so the FCC voted a couple months ago to raise the cap so we can provide the necessary funding to support these deployments.”

Carr says that raising that cap from $400 million to $571 million is one of the ways that the FCC is addressing subsidy issues. He also says that the commission is working to process the payments more effectively due to concerns from service providers that it was taking too long.

Getting those subsidies will help rural health aides like Tania McMullen continue to use tele-health services, which she says she uses every day.

Commissioner Carr will round out his Anchorage visit with meetings with local broadcasters before flying up to Utqiagvik and Wainwright and later Dillingham and Point Clark. He heads back to D.C. Friday night.