A bipartisan group of U.S. senators recently wrote to the leaders of both lawmaking chambers advocating that greater broadband funding for healthcare providers be included in upcoming coronavirus relief packages.
The letter, dated May 8, specifically calls for $2 billion to be added to the existing Rural Health Care (RHC) Program to offset telehealth demand driven by the health emergency. It is signed by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii; Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Sen. Angus King Jr., I-Maine; and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ariz.
"This additional support would expand the reach of the RHC Program to enable health care providers at non-rural and mobile health care facilities to engage in telehealth, eliminate administrative red tape that slows down the ability of front-line providers to obtain broadband connectivity, and provide more resources to current health care providers in the RHC Program so they can increase their broadband capacity to effectively treat their patients," the letter reads.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT?
RHC Program is comprised of two major components, one of which subsidizes any differences between urban and rural telecommunications service rates, and the other that gives healthcare providers a 65% discount on telecommunications and broadband.
According to the senators, demand for the program had already outpaced its funding prior to the start of COVID-19. Now with Congress and HHS reducing restrictions on telehealth use, even more providers will be looking for the support that such a program would provide.
"The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically increased the need to expand telehealth so that health care providers can treat patients safely, without putting themselves or their patients at risk. As a result, many health care providers are facing connectivity challenges in meeting this new demand for telehealth," they wrote. "It is imperative that Congress act to ensure our front-line responders have the tools they need to combat this deadly virus."
THE LARGER TREND
Funding for telehealth and broadband was already passed as part of earlier relief packages out of Congress, and have been used to bankroll the Federal Communications Commission's COVID-19 Telehealth Program. The $200 million effort has been steadily doling out support to healthcare providers. As of May 13, it had approved applications from 82 providers, for a total of $33.26 million.
FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr told MobiHealthNews that this coronavirus-specific effort still falls in line with his group's ongoing $100 million Connected Care Pilot Program. Introduced way back in 2018, that effort aims to bring telemedicine care to those who are low income, veterans or living in underserved rural areas.