Bill Would Increase Broadband, Telehealth Capabilities in Rural America
A bipartisan Senate bill would inject $2 billion to the Rural Health Care program in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The RHC — maintained by the Federal Communications Commission — provides funding to eligible health care providers for telecommunications and broadband services related to health care, including telehealth services.
The Health Care Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act, led by Sens. Brian Schatz, D‑Hawaii, and Lisa Murkowski, R‑Alaska, follows Senate pressure in early May to include $2 billion in the next coronavirus response legislation. Sens. John Boozman, R‑Ark., Angus King, I‑Maine, Gary Peters, D‑Mich., Dan Sullivan, R‑Alaska, Kevin Cramer, R‑N.D., and Ed Markey, D‑Mass., are cosponsoring the legislation.
“During this pandemic, telehealth services are helping families receive the critical health care they need,” Schatz said in a statement. “Our bill will provide much-needed funding to help hospitals improve their connectivity so they can care for more patients.”
Murkowski said Alaska, which includes many small, remote communities — some without access to roads — has experienced a “dramatic increase in the demand for telehealth.”
“Unfortunately, as a result, the Rural Health Care Program has already outpaced the funding it was allocated prior to the outbreak and telehealth providers are facing significant connectivity challenges in their effort to provide care,” Murkowski said.
The bill would:
- Provide $2 billion in additional support for the RHC Program for the coronavirus response.
- Increase the subsidy rate for RHC Health Care Connect Fund participants during the pandemic, which they can put toward additional telehealth resources.
- Enable mobile and non-rural health care facilities to engage in telehealth during the pandemic under the RHC Program.
- Streamline the program’s distribution of funding so that health care providers can quickly implement telehealth applications and treat patients faster.
- Delay the implementation of FCC rules for one year that would impact support for some of the program’s most rural health care providers.
Reps. Anna G. Eshoo, D‑Calif., and Don Young, R‑Alaska, have introduced companion legislation in the House. Several trade groups, including the United States Telecom Association, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, America’s Communications Association, the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, the National League of Cities, and the Fiber Broadband Association, have voiced support for the bill.