While Congress is whittling down the Biden Administration’s massive Build Back Better plan, new announcements out of the USDA and FCC aim to support broadband expansion for telehealth – and to emphasize how important that is to the nation’s infrastructure
– The federal government is making a concerted effort to link broadband connectivity and telehealth to the nation’s infrastructure.
The Us Department of Agriculture last week unveiled more than $1.15 billion in federal loans and grants for broadband expansion in rural regions, alongside $50 million in funding for 105 distance learning and telemedicine projects in 37 states and Puerto Rico. This announcement came on the same day that the Federal Communications Commission unveiled $40.5 million for 71 more projects in the COVID-19 Telehealth Program, and at the same time that the FCC is getting ready to announce more award winners in its Connected Care Pilot Program.
All of these efforts come as the Biden Administration is putting pressure on Congress to support its Build Back Better plan for infrastructure improvements.
In the USDA announcement, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack emphasized the federal action as a means of addressing barriers to care and other services in rural America.
“For too long, the ‘digital divide’ has left too many people living in rural communities behind: unable to compete in the global economy and unable to access the services and resources that all Americans need,” he said in a press release. “As we build back better than we were before, the actions I am announcing today will go a long way toward ensuring that people who live or work in rural areas are able to tap into the benefits of broadband, including access to specialized healthcare, educational opportunities and the global marketplace. Rural people, businesses and communities must have affordable, reliable, high-speed internet so they can fully participate in modern society and the modern economy.”
Telehealth advocates have long argued that broadband connectivity is a significant challenge to connected health adoption, and that healthcare organizations won’t expand their platforms if they can’t guarantee a reliable connection with patients. Likewise, access to telemedicine technology and an understanding of how to use it are considered social determinants of health, non-clinical factors that influence health outcomes.
The USDA’s DLT grants have long been used to address rural connectivity for both healthcare and education, and the award winners are often an even mixture of healthcare providers and schools. Vilsack’s announcement last week highlighted the healthcare side, noting that Illinois-based OSF HealthCare is getting $387,000 to establish a telehealth network to serve more than 100,000 rural patients and United Health Services of Texas is getting almost $200,000 to improve its telemental health platform for 8,000 residents of Oklahoma’s Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations.
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