07.20.15

SCHUMER: LOCAL ROCHESTER COMPANIES THAT OPERATE VIDEO RELAY SERVICES FOR DEAF NEW YORKERS COULD BE AT RISK OF CLOSING IF FEDS MOVE FORWARD WITH SLASHING REIMBURSEMENT RATES; DEAF ROCHESTER RESIDENTS WILL LOSE ACCESS TO LIFE-CHANGING METHOD FOR COMMUNICATING; SCHUMER URGES FEDS TO IMMEDIATELY REVERSE COURSE & SET MARKET RATE FOR FUNDING

Rochester’s Deaf Community Is Dependent On Video Relay Services (VRS) To Communicate; Local Businesses That Provide Video Relay Service, Like CONVO & Sorenson, Are At Risk 

VRS Allows A Person Who Is Deaf To Communicate With A Hearing Person Over The Phone Through A Sign Language Interpreter 

Schumer To FCC: Don’t Take Away The Deaf Community’s Voice

Standing at CONVO in Rochester, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to immediately reverse course on a plan that would drastically cut compensation rates for Video Relay Service (VRS) providers, like CONVO and Sorenson in Rochester. Schumer explained that VRS enables those who are deaf and hard of hearing to converse by telephone using a video American Sign Language interpreter who translates their words into English or Spanish in real time. However, the FCC has implemented a plan that reduces the rates provided to VRS operators every six months through 2017. As of today, rates are already down approximately 20 percent. Schumer therefore said this could put companies that operate VRS, like CONVO and Sorenson, in the lurch and at risk of closing, as rates would be driven down and no longer cover their costs to operate. Schumer said this could effectively force providers to leave the market and reduce the overall quality and availability of service for those who rely on it. As a result, Schumer urged the FCC to take action on a proposal submitted by all six VRS providers, including immediately freezing the rates paid to VRS providers, so providers have the ability to maintain or even upgrade their level of service and not take away the voice of the deaf community.

“People who are deaf and hard of hearing rely on VRS to chat with loved ones, schedule appointments, connect with employers and more by phone every day – so the fact that the FCC has been dropping the rates that allow companies to provide this invaluable service is not only inconvenient, it is inhumane. If companies can no longer cover costs to provide this service, it would effectively take away the deaf community’s voice,” said Schumer. “In a community like Rochester, where 43,000 people are either deaf or hard of hearing, forcing out these companies that provide this vital service would cut off a lifeline for those who depend on it to communicate and for the hundreds of residents who rely on local companies like CONVO and Sorenson for employment. This would be a lose-lose for Rochester. That is why I am urging the FCC not only to freeze reimbursement rates at their current levels so these VRS providers can stay in business, but also to work with companies like these two in Rochester to further improve relay services for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.”

Schumer explained that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 mandated that telecommunications services be provided to deaf and hard of hearing people in a manner that is functionally equivalent to services for the hearing. Following this mandate, several companies – including CONVO and Sorenson in Rochester – have entered the Video Relay Services (VRS) market to meet this need. Schumer said that ever since, the deaf community has truly enjoyed the promise of the ADA by being able to converse by telephone in American Sign Language using a video interpreter, who then translates ALS into English or Spanish. Schumer explained that, as a result of these advances, VRS has become the preferred way for deaf and hard of hearing users to make telephone calls to converse with hearing people. By using a video terminal, deaf users can make a telephone call that is routed through one of six U.S. companies that now provide VRS services, including these two companies located in Rochester.

Schumer noted that, under the ADA, deaf and hard of hearing people must have access to use relay services, like VRS, without being charged extra fees. The VRS compensation system is run by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which collects a fee from phone companies and uses that money to cover the cost of VRS. This is done by paying the VRS companies a set fee per minute to provide this service. However, Schumer explained, in July 2013, the FCC decided it would change its reimbursement rate formula and reduce the rate every six months until 2017, starting in October 2013. Under this rate schedule, this rate drops by up to approximately 4-5 percent every six months, meaning these rates will have been cut by up to 35 percent in just 3.5 years.  As of today, rates are already down approximately 20 percent in two of the three service tiers.  Schumer said that this drastic cut is now, two years in, having a devastating impact on the six VRS providers, as it is becoming increasingly difficult for companies like CONVO and Sorenson to maintain the same level of quality relay services because its declining revenues make it hard to cover operating costs.

Schumer said these rates, if allowed to decline any further, could also threaten jobs in the Rochester area at companies like CONVO and Sorenson as well as the entire service the deaf community has come to rely on for years. In particular, CONVO employs 30 sign language interpreters and technical support staff in the Rochester area while Sorenson employs 135 sign language interpreters and technical support staff at its facility.  These jobs could be at risk as costs can no longer be covered with plummeting FCC reimbursement rates. Furthermore, Schumer said that the rate reduction for VRS providers could also lead to a deterioration or even elimination of service among existing providers, which will have a catastrophic impact on VRS consumers. Forcing providers out of the market because they can no longer provide the service with diminished revenues could prevent needed service improvements and technological advancements, such as relaying in languages other than English and Spanish or providing specialized medical or legal interpretation. Schumer also said this technology is especially vital in the Rochester community, which has an estimated population of more than 43,000 people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. In fact, Rochester has the highest per capita concentration of deaf and hard-of-hearing people under the age of 65, particularly due to its world class institution, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) located in the city, where many people then put down roots in Rochester after receiving their education at NTID.

As a result, Schumer launched a two-pronged push to have the FCC both freeze these rates at current levels and work with providers to improve the service for both the sake of consumers and VRS providers. First, Schumer said that the rates have already been cut by roughly 20 percent in the last two years. Schumer said these six companies are not looking to roll back these cuts but rather stymie any further rate reductions that could serve as their “tipping point.” Instead of the currently planned additional rate reductions, Schumer urged the FCC to work with providers to set market-based compensation rates.  Second, Schumer said these six VRS providing companies have developed a plan to better improve VRS for consumers, provided these rates are immediately frozen to give them the ability to maintain and upgrade their services. Specifically, this plan would establish a “skills-based routing” system, whereby highly specialized calls – involving translation in areas like medical and legal issues – can be routed to interpreters who have knowledge within the relevant field. In addition, these companies have proposed adding more deaf interpreters with high English proficiency and other various skills to improve the service. Finally, these companies have proposed new requirements to cut down on the time it takes to answer calls. The providers are proposing to meet a faster service-level requirement, where 80 percent of calls must be answered within 45 seconds. This is compared with the current requirement that 80 percent of calls must be answered within 120 seconds.

Schumer was joined by CONVO CEO Jarrod Musano and local employees.

“As the sole Deaf-owned and operated VRS provider, we have a first-hand understanding of what gives a caller an experience that is equivalent. That experience requires a highly maintained dynamic of skilled and sensitive interpreters, Deaf-centric features, and technology that allows us the same speed and access as our hearing peers. Continued FCC rate cuts will compromise the quality of service and level of innovation that we are currently committed to providing. We urge the FCC to take the necessary steps to support our unending efforts toward Functional Equivalency. Rate stabilization benefits not only Deaf and hard of hearing people. It is mutually beneficial to ensure quality communication access for all people without risk of barriers. Thank you, Senator Schumer and the FCC, for their attention to these vital matters,” said Jarrod Musano, CEO of CONVO.

Schumer cited the example of dire consequences that happened when the FCC cut rates for a different technology service that relayed text messages for deaf and hard of hearing people. Initially, several companies provided text relay services. However once the FCC started a rate cut plan, all but one of the companies left the market. That remaining company then struggled to service all of the customers by itself, so much so that the FCC raised the rates again. Schumer said the FCC should learn from the past and freeze rates now before it has a devastating impact on Rochester area companies and the deaf community as a whole.

A copy of Schumer’s letter to the FCC appears below:

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

I write today to urge the FCC to work with the coalition of providers of Video Relay Service (VRS) in order to preserve this life-changing technology for the deaf and hard of hearing.  I am especially concerned with the FCC’s current rate reduction schedule, which will result in cuts of up to 35% in the reimbursement VRS providers receive.

VRS is groundbreaking technology.  It allows deaf and hard of hearing people to place and receive phone calls in real-time via an American Sign Language interpreter and a video terminal. With VRS, deaf users can call their friends and family, their bank, make restaurant reservations, and countless other daily tasks over the phone that many hearing users take for granted.  In this way, VRS adheres to the Americans with Disabilities Act goal of functionally equivalent services for the disabled.   

But due to current FCC rules, the future of VRS is in jeopardy.  Under previous leadership, in 2013, the FCC passed new rules putting higher demands on VRS providers while at the same time slashing their reimbursement rates.  The result will be that VRS providers – of which there are only six in the nation – will very likely be forced out of business, leaving the deaf and hard of hearing community without any access to VRS at all.

Earlier this year, the six VRS providers put together a proposal for the FCC to address both quality concerns and reimbursement rate issues.  Included in this proposal was a request that the FCC freeze the current rates (currently 20% below where they were in 2013) and work with providers to develop a market-based compensation rate schedule.  I strongly support this proposal, and urge the FCC to act on in swiftly, including freezing rates across all three tiers of service. 

Maintaining the viability of VRS is critical to my deaf and hard of hearing constituents; I am also concerned with preserving the hundreds of jobs VRS providers have across the state of New York.  I hope and trust the FCC will be able to work with providers and the deaf community to achieve the Commissions goals in a fair, responsible, and mutually agreeable way. 

Sincerely,

Charles E. Schumer

United States Senator

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