A new bill before Congress aims to increase funding for telehealth expansion programs that target improved broadband connectivity.
The Accelerating Connected Care and Education Support Services on the Internet (ACCESS the Internet) Act, introduced this past week by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and John Cornyn (R-TX), proposes to add $400 million to Federal Communications Commission’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program, which was shut down last month after exhausting its $200 million allocation through the CARES Act. It would also set aside another $100 million for the Department of Veterans Affairs to expand connected health access for veterans in rural and underserved areas.
The bill targets a significant barrier to telehealth expansion in rural and remote areas of the country. Healthcare providers can’t extend programs and services into these areas – and residents can’t use them – unless they have access to reliable and uninterrupted broadband.
“The current COVID-19 pandemic has shone a new light on the broadband issues in West Virginia and across rural America,” Manchin said in a press release. “Americans and West Virginians have had to adjust to a new way of working, learning, and living from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic and for most people, this change relies on accessible, reliable broadband which many rural Americans do not have.”
“This commonsense bill could help our children, Veterans and families access reliable broadband to pay their bills, complete their homework, and keep up with doctor’s appointments,” he added.
The bill would also add $1.3 billion to the Department of Education to boost distance learning service and give $200 million to the Institute for Museum & Library Services, with at least $1.6 million set aside per state, to improve Internet connectivity in libraries in low-income and rural areas.
The FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program has been a hot topic on Capitol Hill in recent months. Created out of the CARES Act in March, the program provided funding for 539 programs in 47 states, Washington DC and Guam before running out of funding in July. At the time, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency would follow up with a study on how well the program accomplished its goals.
There have been a few attempts to keep that program going. In April, the American Telemedicine Association petitioned Congressional leaders to add $300 million to the program, and in July US Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Dusty Johnson (R-SD) introduced a bill to add $200 million to the program through an FY 2020 supplemental appropriation, following up on a letter to Pai that was signed by more than 40 members of Congress.
The VA’s telehealth and mHealth programs haven’t gone without notice, either. Earlier this month, US Reps. Susie Lee (D-NV) and Jim Banks (R-IN) introduced the VA Telehealth Expansion Act, which aims to give the VA Secretary more authority to enter into new partnerships and expand existing deals that support connected health access for veterans. It would create a grant program to facilitate those partnerships, and would give special emphasis to programs that help veterans in rural or underserved parts of the country.
In June, the VA announced that the coronavirus pandemic had created a surge in business for the agency’s three-year-old connected health platform, including a 1,000 percent increase over the usual traffic recorded on the VA Video Connect mHealth app.