Improving health IT infrastructure in rural areas is one goal of a legislative package that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has introduced.
One bill in the package, the Connecting Rural Americans to Care Act of 2016, addresses the need to better coordinate the financial and technical assistance the federal government provides to rural providers to expand Internet capabilities.
Reliable broadband connectivity is vital as telemedicine becomes more widely used to serve people in rural areas.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created the Healthcare Connect Fund in 2012 to support Internet access and broadband infrastructure, but participation in the program has been low, as noted by authors of a 2015 Health Affairs blog post urging better coordination among federal agencies.
Franken’s bill calls for an interagency task force to provide that coordination, leadership and best practices for expanding broadband infrastructure for healthcare.
It also calls on the FCC to increase the Healthcare Connect Fund’s discount for rural providers on broadband services, equipment, and connections from 65 percent to 85 percent and to streamline the application process. It would allow the FCC to provide even greater discounts in tribal areas.
The bill also would increase funding for programs addressing rural patients’ transportation needs, according to a fact sheet.
Franken's legislative package also includes two other bills, according to an announcement:
- The Strengthening Our Rural Health Workforce Act of 2016, which aims to bolster the rural healthcare workforce, specifically in primary care and mental health as well as support emerging professions.
- The Rural Health Care Quality Improvement Act of 2016, which would set core quality measures specific to rural healthcare and boost rural representation in delivery system reform organizations