The FCC is under-funding Reagan's Lifeline program - why Americans need it now more than ever

The FCC is under-funding Reagan's Lifeline program - why Americans need it now more than ever

When President Ronald Reagan created the Lifeline program 35 years ago to help low-income Americans with subsidized telephone services, few could have predicted just how lifesaving it would become. Under normal circumstances, access to the internet is essential to participating in today’s economy. During the global pandemic, however, this access has become a literal lifeline for millions of Americans.

Unfortunately, the Lifeline program is now on life support—at risk of being neutered during one of the most critical inflection points in our nation’s history, when so many Americans are struggling to put food on their tables. For the third year in a row, the FCC has forced a substantially higher unfunded mandate on carriers, meaning carriers will have no choice but to charge new copays to those who are already struggling financially.

As I write this, countless Americans are sinking deeper into a financial chasm that increases their likelihood of relying on government assistance programs for the rest of their lives. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have a significant opportunity to step up and show our fellow citizens what it means to be American—to go the extra mile in serving our fellow man in need, while creating long-term, high-value solutions that save money and benefit us all.

Why? Lifeline Saves Lives.

Being on the wrong side of the digital divide comes with life-or-death consequences during a deadly pandemic, when nearly half of all patient consults are being conducted remotely and virtual visits have increased by 50 to 175 percent.

Not being able to access telemedicine makes it even less likely a patient will seek care when he or she really needs it. Over 40 percent of Americans are already postponing care due to COVID-19-related concerns, for instance, which can increase their chances of dying by up to 30 percent or lead to a worsening of their condition that requires more expensive care (often at the hospital’s and taxpayers’ expense).

Among those who depend on the Lifeline program are millions of our nation’s veterans, who rely on it to receive essential care and services such as treatment and counseling for PTSD and suicide prevention. We owe these self-sacrificing men and women nothing less than unencumbered access to quality healthcare and mental health professionals, virtual support groups, jobs, and educational opportunities.

Why? Lifeline Saves Money—And More Than Pays for Itself.

Lifeline not only pays for itself but has the potential to save taxpayers billions of dollars. A monthly Lifeline $9.25 reimbursement is a lot cheaper, for instance, than a single hospital emergency room visit at taxpayers’ and hospitals’ expense. Telemedicine visits not only cost far less than in-person appointments, but reduce avoidable utilization of critical hospital resources. If the Lifeline program diverts just 1 out of every 10 current subscribers from an unnecessary trip to the emergency room, taxpayers could save an estimated $4 billion+ annually—which represents more than double the current Lifeline budget. By adequately equipping the program to succeed, we could save billions in federal Medicaid and Medicare expenses, as well as billions for our community hospitals struggling to remain open.

Lifeline is perhaps the only federal assistance program that, when successfully implemented, has the ability to take people off of other federal assistance programs. It provides Americans with the critical resources they need to get back on their feet: jobs, education, and healthcare.

How? Essential Improvements.

Both the Federal Communications Commission and Congress must start to incent, rather than cripple, the Lifeline program. First, the program’s reimbursement formula must be modernized to reflect the true cost of providing voice and mobile broadband services. The Commission should raise the decade-old monthly reimbursement rate by at least $25 for Lifeline providers that offer 4G LTE devices with hotspot that include an unlimited talk, text, and data plan.

Secondly, leaders must recognize that access to voice and broadband is useless without affordable devices and services. Too many political leaders have sought to throw money at fixed broadband deployment programs that require years or even decades to implement (i.e., by physically burying fiber lines across the country), failing to realize that more immediate and less expensive solutions exist via mobile. According to Pew Research, the majority of low-income Americans choose wireless mobile over fixed broadband when they cannot afford both.

Third, we can deliver immediate relief to low-income Americans across nine states by lifting the FCC’s informal eight-year moratorium on approving new Lifeline providers in those states. While numerous requests are pending before the Commission in those states seeking authorization, the approval has been moth-balled for almost a decade.

Fourth, the Commission should explore the potential savings, rather than the costs, of maintaining its current rule of one reimbursement per household. This is not realistic for today’s standards, in which every member of the household needs a personal device to successfully search for jobs or connect to the classroom.

And finally, to reduce any remaining waste, fraud, or abuse in the program, the Commission should reinstate the short-term program freeze that requires subscribers to stay with a provider for a minimum of 90 days. Reducing churn would help root out fraud and save the program millions of dollars, not to mention encourage providers to enhance their services offerings.

Let’s Rise to This Occasion.

President Reagan’s decades-old program was designed for moments like this. There is no other single safety-net program that directly supports access to healthcare, education, employment opportunities, and first responders for our nation’s most vulnerable. I call on our wise leaders to stand in the gap and equip the Lifeline program to fulfill its true potential, so that no American is left out or left behind.

Judson Hill is an American politician. He is a former member of the Georgia State Senate from the 32nd district, serving from 2005 until 2017. Senator Hill also served in the Reagan Administration as an Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and in Washington, D.C. at the United States Department of State, Agency for International Development. Prior to that, he worked for President Reagan on the White House Advance Team and on the Reagan-Bush ’84 campaign.