The Trump administration is doling out $8 million to improve broadband access for rural telehealth services.
The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), part of the Department of Health and Human Services, awarded the funding to the Telehealth Broadband Pilot (TBP) program. That program will assess the broadband capacity available to rural health care providers and patient communities to improve their access to telehealth services.
"HHS has made it a priority to transform rural healthcare, including through innovations like telehealth, where we've seen many years' worth of progress in just the past year," said HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan in a statement.
"As someone who hails from rural America, supporting delivery of care in the most remote parts of America, like Alaska, is a personal passion of mine, and telehealth is a crucial part of that work. This telehealth pilot program is part of the Rural Action Plan that HHS launched this past year, which lays out a path forward to coordinate agency efforts to transform and improve rural health care in tangible ways."
The majority of the funds, $6.5 million, will go to the National Telehealth Technology Assessment Resource Center (TTAC) to improve telehealth access in Alaska, Michigan, Texas, and West Virginia.
The organization is based out of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and works in the area of technology assessment and selecting appropriate technologies for a variety of telehealth services. TTAC will also work with the Rural Telehealth Initiative's federal partners to improve rural communities' access to broadband and telehealth services through existing funding opportunities and grant programs.
The University of Arkansas' Telehealth-Focused Rural Health Research Center was awarded $1.5 million to evaluate telehealth broadband for communities in the program and to serve as a resource on telehealth for rural communities around the nation.
"We are excited to collaborate on this pilot program that will identify rural communities' access to broadband to improve their ability to use telehealth services," said HRSA Administrator Tom Engels. "HRSA remains dedicated to helping rural communities build the capabilities to improve access to quality health care."
In many rural areas, broadband remains too expensive, unreliable or simply not available at the speeds required to enable innovations in care.
The federal government has ramped up efforts to address the technology challenges that could hinder telehealth access. In July, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) added almost $200 million to a rural healthcare program to help providers buy telecommunications and broadband services.
The FCC also launched a $200 million COVID-19 telehealth program in 2020 to provide immediate support to healthcare providers using virtual care in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
In August, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to expand telehealth and boost rural health care. The order also directed the Departments of Agriculture, HHS, and FCC, to form a task force to focus on improving broadband infrastructure in rural communities to support telehealth.
The TBP program, a three-year pilot, stems from that executive order.
The three agencies also are collaborating on the Rural Telehealth Initiative, a joint effort to collaborate and share information to address health disparities, resolve service provider challenges, and promote broadband services and technology to rural areas.