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Senators Seek Broadband Funds for Telehealth Expansion in Next Relief Bill

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Four senators are asking Congress to include $2 billion in the next COVID-19 relief package to help rural communities and healthcare providers improve broadband connectivity to fuel telehealth expansion.

By Eric Wicklund on

While telehealth interests have been broadly served by Coronavirus relief bills to date, a group of lawmakers is looking for more support in the next package.

Led by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), a longtime supporter of connected health adoption, a group of senators is lobbying to add $2 billion to the next relief bill for broadband expansion, a key and often overlooked component to nationwide telehealth adoption. They’re calling on Congress to add that money to the Rural Health Care (RHC) Program.

“Congress must do more for our health care providers so that they can meet telehealth needs during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the senators wrote in a letter to Congressional leadership. “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.”

Comprised of the Telecommunications Program, which makes up for the difference between urban and rural connectivity costs, and the Health Care Connect Fund, which covers as much as 65 percent of those connectivity costs, the RHC Program was established in 1997 and given a $400 million cap. In 2018, with demand for funding outpacing resources, the FCC added money to the fund.

But demand for rural broadband access is still growing, caused in part by an expansion of telehealth programs. To help healthcare providers and others looking to build out their telemedicine and mHealth platforms, the FCC has launched a three-year, $100 million Connected Care Pilot Program and, more recently, the $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program, the latter funded by the Cares Act.

Schatz and his colleagues – Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Angus King Jr. (I-ME) and john Boozman (R-AR) – say the ongoing COVID-19 emergency will add to the pressure on the RHC Program, as more and more providers turn to telehealth to improve access to care and payers ease restrictions during the pandemic to make that happen.

“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,” the senators said. “As a result, many health care providers are facing connectivity challenges in meeting this new demand for telehealth. It is imperative that Congress act to ensure our front-line responders have the tools they need to combat this deadly virus.”