Healthcare broadband program participation lags

Better access to broadband to improve healthcare has been a goal of federal efforts to close the "connectivity gap" between rural and urban areas, but participation has been low, according to a Health Affairs Blog post that urges changes in the Rural Health Care Program (RHCP).

The Federal Communications Commission administers funds for three types of services originally under the program: telecommunication services for rural providers (Telecommunications Fund); Internet access for rural providers (Internet Access Fund); and one-time capital costs for network deployment with five years of support for costs of advanced telecommunications and information services for rural and urban providers (Pilot Program).

The Healthcare Connect Fund was created in 2012 to support Internet access and broadband infrastructure.

While RHCP can spend up to $400 million a year, total spending commitments were only $178 million in 2013 and $65 million in 2014.

The rise of telemedicine and services that require transmission of large files makes it especially important to increase participation in these programs, according to author Mohit Kaushal, former director of connected health with the Federal Communications Commission, and colleagues.

They urge the following changes:

  1. Make it easier for rural healthcare providers to use broadband support. Simplify the application and clarify the amount of support grantees can expect; accept outcome metrics already being asked of providers; and increase infrastructure support provided by the Healthcare Connect Fund to no less than 85 percent of all eligible costs
  2. Expand eligibility requirements to include more healthcare providers, such as nursing homes, hospices and other long-term care facilities
  3. Adjust the RHCP to address the rapidly changing broadband environment. Regularly publish a Health Care Broadband Status Report describing the state of the connectivity gap and update RHCP funding guidance to reflect these findings.

In addition, the report's authors call for greater coordination among federal agencies to ensure that funding improves health outcomes. They suggest having one agency--such as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services--coordinate various sources of funding for health IT and care improvement to ensure programs work together to achieve their shared goals.

The global telemedicine market is predicted to nearly double in five years, according to an industry research report from December published by But the FCC isn't the only federal agency doling out grants, The U.S. Department of Agriculture in November awarded $8.6 million in Rural Development Distance Learning and Telemedicine grants.

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