AHA, NRHA lead calls for more federal support to expand broadband to rural health providers

Healthcare providers, payers and two large healthcare associations want more federal funding to improve high-speed internet access that will support cost-saving telehealth and digital health initiatives.

In letters to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), both the American Hospital Association (AHA) and the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) urged the agency to increase the annual funding limits through the Rural Health Care Program (RHCP), which is currently capped at $400 million annually. The letters were in response to the FCC’s request for input regarding barriers to broadband-enabled advancements in healthcare.

The AHA also called for the FCC to increase its level of support through the Healthcare Connect Fund, which covers broadband costs for rural providers, from 65% to 85%, and adopt a less restrictive definition of a “rural” facility.

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“Funding for broadband-enabled healthcare is needed today more than ever, and the $400 million cap established 20 years ago is no longer sufficient to meet burgeoning demand,” the AHA wrote. “The inclusion of a new class of provider—skilled nursing facilities—beginning in 2017 will place additional demands on funding and should be accompanied by an increase in the cap to accommodate them.”

Geisinger Health System, which serves 2.6 million residents in rural parts of Pennsylvania, also supported raising the RHCP cap and recommended the FCC roll over approximately $375 million in unused funds from the previous three years.

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NRHA noted that the program has been underutilized in the past because of the “complicated application and administrative process associated with this program.” Those burdens, the association argued, were holding back rural health providers that don’t have access to professional grant writers or consultants.

Several large medical systems and health payers weighed in as well. WellCare noted that “there is a fundamental broadband issue” among rural providers that “lack the infrastructure” for telehealth programs. The insurer also urged the FCC to work alongside state health information exchanges to improve EHR functionality that is critical to telehealth.

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Beyond rural healthcare, Kaiser Permanente added that broadband is becoming a critical element for the system’s 400,000 medical devices, and 5G networks will help facilitate the use of wearables and sensors and allow hospitals to effectively share and analyze patient data.